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Monday, June 17, 2024

Frost appears on Martian volcanoes in the morning

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The highest mountain in the solar system is covered with frost from time to time. Data collected by the ExoMars TGO probe showed that water frost appears on the Olympus Mons volcano in the morning hours. This is the first such discovery near the Martian equator and an extremely important detail in the context of future manned missions to Mars.

The highest mountains in the solar system are located on Mars, on the Tharsis plateau near the equator. They are dominated by the Olympus Mons volcano, rising above the planet's surface to a height of over 21,000 meters – for comparison, Mount Everest has an absolute height of about 8,848 m. According to a scientific article published in “Nature Geoscience”, their landscape may have something in common with the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

60 Olympic swimming pools

In their analysis, researchers analyzed data collected by the European Space Agency's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). It has a CaSSIS color camera system on board, which has been taking high-resolution images of the Martian surface since 2018. Some of the photos she sent showed blueish sediment in volcanic calderas, but it was gradually disappearing.

To solve the mystery of the phenomenon, scientists analyzed over 5,000 images from the TGO spacecraft and data provided by other measuring instruments – a stereo camera on board the ESA Mars Express orbiter and the NOMAD spectrometer on board TGO. The blue sediment turned out to be water frost. Despite the thin layer, probably not much thicker than a human hair, there is a lot of water hidden in the frost because it covers a huge area.

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“This represents about 150,000 tons of water circulating between the surface and the atmosphere every day during the cold season, which is roughly equivalent to 60 Olympic swimming pools,” explained Adomas Valantinas of Brown University in the United States, lead author of the study.

Water frost in the Olympus Mons calderaESA/DLR/FU Berlin

An Earth-Mars phenomenon

The presence of frost was quite a surprise because Olympus Mons and neighboring volcanoes lie relatively close to the equator, where there is quite a lot of sunlight and the surface temperature is relatively high. Moreover, Mars' thin atmosphere cools rock surfaces poorly, so high-altitude areas may heat up as much as low-elevation surfaces.

– As we could see in the photos, frost is present only for a short time, for a few hours after sunrise, and then evaporates – explained the scientist. – At night, the wind brings moist air from the lowlands, which cools at high altitudes, causing water to condense and form frost. This is a known phenomenon on both Earth and Mars.

Study co-author Nicolas Thomas from the University of Bern added that the discovery could be crucial for future manned missions to Mars. Understanding where water can be found and how it moves between reservoirs is important to many aspects of exploration. In addition, a better understanding of the water cycle will allow us to determine whether the planet could – or can – support life processes.

Water frost in the Olympus Mons caldera – visualizationESA/DLR/FU Berlin

Main photo source: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

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