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Meteors may help seed clouds on Mars

Clouds moving above the Curiosity rover on Mars. Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience finds meteors may be responsible for helping to form clouds in Mars' middle atmosphere, about 18 miles above the ground.

Why it matters: Learning more about the red planet's current climate could help scientists piece together the world's past. The origins of the clouds in the middle atmosphere were a mystery until now.

Details: Meteors deliver about 2 to 3 tons of space debris to Mars each day. The new study suggests the "meteoric smoke" produced when these space rocks break up in the Martian atmosphere allow water molecules to coalesce around the bits of dust, forming clouds.

  • The study used computer simulations to piece together how these mysterious clouds form.
  • When the researchers added in material brought to Mars by meteors, the clouds in the middle atmosphere appeared in the model.
  • Other clouds on Mars, particularly in lower parts of the planet's atmosphere, form when dust is kicked up from the Martian surface.

What they found: The wispy clouds may play an important role in determining the temperature in the Martian atmosphere, which could vary by as much as 18°F, 10°C, depending on the cloud cover, the researchers say.

Be smart: Meteoric smoke also helps form clouds on Earth. One explanation for noctilucent clouds that form high in Earth's atmosphere centers around meteor dust.