Research Breakthrough: Water Frost Found on Solar System's Tallest Volcanoes

By Jurassic JennJun 12, 2024 13:42 PMScience
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Water Frost Found on Solar System's Tallest Volcanoes
Water Frost Found on Solar System's Tallest Volcanoes. Source: www.eurekalert.org

In a groundbreaking development, scientists have made an unprecedented discovery of water frost on the Tharsis volcanoes on Mars, which hold the distinction of being not only the tallest volcanic mountains on the Red Planet, but also in the entire solar system. This was reported by SSPDaily.

Pioneered by an international team of planetary scientists, this finding defies previous assumptions about Mars' climate dynamics and marks the first observation of frost near the planet's equator. Published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the study challenges traditional beliefs by shedding light on ancient climate cycles that might have fostered precipitation and even snowfall on Mars' volcanic peaks in the past.

Contrary to expectations, frost formation persists for just a few hours after sunrise before dissipating under the mighty Martian sun. Although remarkably thin, with an estimated thickness of only one-hundredth of a millimeter (comparable to a human hair), the frost covers an extensive area. Rough calculations indicate that it comprises a minimum of 150,000 tons of water, which cyclically transitions between the surface and atmosphere each day during the cold seasons—a water volume equivalent to approximately 60 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Tharsis, the region where the frost was discovered, boasts a profusion of towering volcanoes that surpass the surrounding plains, with heights ranging from one to two times that of Mount Everest on Earth. For instance, Olympus Mons, one of the immense Tharsis volcanoes, stretches as wide as the entirety of France.

The frost accumulates within the calderas of these volcanoes, which are large depressions formed during past volcanic eruptions. The researchers suggest that the specific air circulation patterns above these mountains create a distinctive microclimate favorable for the formation of these delicate frost patches.

Unraveling the mysteries of frost formation on Mars opens up new opportunities for scientists to uncover additional insights about the presence and movement of water on the planet. It also provides a deeper understanding of Mars' intricate atmospheric dynamics, which lays a crucial foundation for future exploration and the search for potential signs of life.

The identification of frost was accomplished through the utilization of high-resolution color images acquired by the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) on board the European Space Agency's Trace Gas Orbiter. These findings were subsequently validated by independent observations using the High-Resolution Stereo Camera aboard the ESA's Mars Express orbiter and the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery spectrometer aboard the Trace Gas Orbiter.

The process involved meticulous analysis of over 30,000 images, which allowed scientists to identify and confirm the existence of frost. Lead researcher Adomas Valantinas carefully examined the images based on factors such as acquisition location, time of day, and season. This painstaking methodology facilitated the isolation of distinct spectral signatures that indicate the presence of water frost and its specific locations on Mars' surface.

While embarking on this research, Valantinas primarily worked on image analysis during his Ph.D. studies, which he pursued abroad. Now based at Brown University, he plans to delve further into Martian mysteries and transition his focus to astrobiology. Under the guidance of Brown planetary scientist Jack Mustard, Valantinas intends to investigate ancient hydrothermal environments that might have harbored microbial life. Insights gleaned from characterizing samples obtained from these environments could be crucial in the NASA-led Mars Sample Return mission, where Martian samples may potentially be brought back to Earth.

Driven by a lifelong fascination for the concept of a second genesis—that is, the existence of life forms beyond Earth—Valantinas is determined to contribute to the ongoing quest for answers in this captivating field.

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