Amateur astronomers have spotted huge cloudlike plumes erupting from Mars – a phenomenon that scientists are at a loss to explain.
The bright flares, which have now died away, towered higher than anything else observed in the Martian atmosphere. Their tops reached some 150 miles in altitude, more than twice as high as the highest Martian clouds, and they sprawled across 300 to 600 miles, researchers report in this week’s Nature, a science journal.
The researchers initially were skeptical, but “we came to the conclusion that what we were seeing is actually real,” says study co-author Antonio García Muñoz, a planetary scientist at the European Space Agency. The plumes are “exceptional. … It’s difficult to come to terms with this.”
This scientific brainteaser first came to light in early 2012, when amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke was poring over footage of Mars he had captured at his private observatory. He came across a puzzling image showing the Red Planet with a blob billowing off the planet’s rounded edge.
In all his years of peering at Mars, “I’d never seen anything like that,” says Jaeschke, a West Chester, Pa., resident who spends about 100 nights a year training his gear on the heavens. He quietly ran the image by a few friends, then circulated it among a larger group of both amateur and professional astronomers.
The image confounded the pros, too. Martian clouds, which are typically made of ice crystals, tend to be wispy, like the thin cirrus clouds seen high in Earth’s sky. But these were enormous wide plumes seen on 11 days in March 2012 and again in April 2012. Later, the scientists dug up 1997 images of Mars from the Hubble Space Telescope that show a similar plume.
Perhaps the bright fingers are clouds of ice crystals. But for that to be true, the Martian atmosphere would have to be much colder than expected, the scientists concluded. Perhaps the plumes are a particularly dazzling Martian aurora, like the Northern Lights on Earth. If so, they were 1,000 times stronger than any aurora ever seen on Earth. Further, there’s no record of unusual sun activity – an essential ingredient of a spectacular aurora – on the days when the shiny bulges appeared on the planet’s profile.
SOURCE: Traci Watson