In the dead of a Martian winter, clouds of snow blanket the Red Planet’s poles — but unlike our water-based snow, the particles on Mars are frozen crystals of carbon dioxide. Most of the Martian atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide, and in the winter, the poles get so cold — cold enough to freeze alcohol — that the gas condenses, forming tiny particles of snow.
Now researchers at MIT have calculated the size of snow particles in clouds at both Martian poles from data gathered by orbiting spacecraft. From their calculations, the group found snow particles in the south are slightly smaller than snow in the north — but particles at both poles are about the size of a red blood cell.
“These are very fine particles, not big flakes,” says Kerri Cahoy, the Boeing Career Development Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. If the carbon dioxide particles were eventually to fall and settle on the Martian surface, “you would probably see it as a fog, because they’re so small.”
Cahoy and graduate student Renyu Hu worked with Maria Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT, to analyze vast libraries of data gathered from instruments onboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). From the data, they determined the size of carbon dioxide snow particles in clouds, using measurements of the maximum buildup of surface snow at both poles. The buildup is about 50 percent larger at Mars’ south pole than its north pole.
Over the course of a Martian year (a protracted 687 days, versus Earth’s 365), the researchers observed that as it gets colder and darker from fall to winter, snow clouds expand from the planet’s poles toward its equator. The snow reaches halfway to the equator before shrinking back toward the poles as winter turns to spring, much like on Earth.
“For the first time, using only spacecraft data, we really revealed this phenomenon on Mars,” says Hu, lead author of a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, which details the group’s results.
Diving through data
To get an accurate picture of carbon dioxide condensation on Mars, Hu analyzed an immense amount of data, including temperature and pressure profiles taken by the MRO every 30 seconds over the course of five Martian years (more than nine years on Earth). The researchers looked through the data to see where and when conditions would allow carbon dioxide cloud particles to form.