The Science of Sustainability

Springtime on Mars

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NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; Fans of dark dust on Mars'
southern ice cap, apparently blasted from beneath the ice
by thawing carbon dioxide."

It's spring again, that time of year when my thoughts return to…blasts of carbon dioxide gas jetting up from beneath the frigid layer of dry ice below, carrying rusty red dust in plumes that jet toward the pale skies….

At least, that's what happens at the polar ice cap on the planet Mars. I'd sure love to be there to see it, even if there are no flowers in bloom. Still, there seems to be plenty of "blossoming" going on….

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—the spacecraft with that high powered camera that could spot a beach ball on Mars' surface—has captured images of the aftermath of some of Mars' springtime polar action. Appearing as dark fan-shaped bursts strewn across the thinning springtime polar ice, these features are explained as plumes of Martian dust that have settled after being blasted into the air by releases of gas pressure from under the surface of the ice.

To describe what's going on, let me paint a picture of the Martian polar region as it emerges from the deep freeze of winter into spring.

Mars' year is almost twice as long as Earth's—and so too are its seasons. Winter at the southern pole of Mars lasts almost six months. In that time, the normally freezing temperatures on the Red Planet plummet to as low as -225 degrees Fahrenheit at the pole. During this time, Mars' permanent water ice cap acquires a layer of frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice) on top, formed from carbon dioxide freezing directly out of the atmosphere.

This seasonal dry ice cap also forms around the edges of the water ice cap, covering adjacent ice-free surfaces as well. The carbon dioxide ice cap may grow to as much as a meter thick.

Then, as spring approaches and the ice cap gradually comes out of the dark and receives more and more sunlight, it begins to warm up (though don't get the impression that it is ever "warm" anywhere on Mars' surface! Air temperatures recorded by the Viking landers in Mars' more temperate latitudes was barely ever higher than 1 degree Fahrenheit). Spring Equinox in Mars' southern hemisphere was on December 26th.

As the layer of solid carbon dioxide heats up, its ices turn to gas, both at the top of the layer and beneath it as well. The gases forming underneath build up pressure, which seeks a path to escape. Evidently the pressurized carbon dioxide gas can actually carve channels in the Martian soils under the ice as it flows—said channels have been seen in the past after the seasonal ice cap dissipates entirely.

When the gases find a weak point in the ice, they can erupt upward, bursting into the air, sometimes carrying dust with it. The dust rockets skyward and is blown by prevailing winds, settling out on the ice in great dark fans—which is what Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has shown us.

Ah, to be on Mars in springtime….

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Category: Astronomy

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Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.