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Meteors falling on Mars give birth to mysterious smoky clouds

NASA's Curiosity rover sees clouds on Mars.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / York University

The Mars Mars InSight of NASA and The Curiosity rover does a lot of skygazing and return beautiful views of vaporous clouds. It does not rain on Mars, but perhaps we are closer to understanding how a cold, barren planet can have such cloudy and picturesque days.

A research team led by Victoria Hartwick, a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, took a closer look at the mysterious clouds that form in the mid-March atmosphere, about 30 kilometers from the ground.

"Clouds do not form on their own," said Hartwick. "They need something they can focus on." The secret could be "meteoric smoke", an icy dust that forms when space rocks fly in the atmosphere of the planet.

Hartwick noted that several tons of space debris were crashing every day on Mars. When the meteors break up, the dust flies away. On Earth, dust particles can act as seeds through which water vapor condenses to form clouds. A similar action could occur on Mars.

Researchers conducted computer simulations of the planet's atmosphere. The clouds only appeared in the simulations when the team included meteors in the calculations. The team published its findings Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

By observing the clouds on Mars, we can tell scientists more about the interaction of the atmosphere with its climate, while giving us clues about its warmer and wetter past. It's good to have a scientific context that accompanies the soothing view of the clouds.

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