Canadian scientists discover snow falling from Martian clouds

TORONTO, September 29, 2008 -- A team of Canadian scientists, led by York University, has discovered snow falling from Martian clouds – a first in observations from the surface of the red planet.

A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars, detected snow from clouds approximately four kilometres above the NASA Phoenix spacecraft’s landing site. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

"Nothing like this view has ever been seen on Mars," said York University professor Jim Whiteway, lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied meteorological station on Phoenix.

"We'll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground,” said Whiteway, who announced the findings today during a news briefing at NASA’s Washington headquarters.

 

The meteorological station gathers crucial information about the climate on Mars, and provides a comprehensive picture of the atmosphere at the landing site, 1,200 km from the planet’s north pole. It consists of temperature, wind, and pressure sensors, as well as a laser-based-light-detecting-and-ranging (lidar) system. The lidar shoots pulses of laser light into the Martian sky, precisely measuring components of the atmosphere such as dust, ground fog, and clouds, from the surface up to a range of 20 km.

At the briefing, NASA also announced that experiments have provided evidence of past interaction between minerals and liquid water, processes that occur on Earth.

Experiments also yielded clues pointing to calcium carbonate, the main composition of chalk, and particles that could be clay. Most carbonates and clays on Earth form only in the presence of liquid water.

 

Since landing on May 25, Phoenix confirmed that a hard subsurface layer at its far-northern site contains water-ice. Determining whether that ice ever thaws would help answer whether the environment there has been favorable for life, a key aim of the mission.

The Phoenix mission, originally planned for three months on Mars, has begun its fifth month. However, it faces a decline in solar energy that is expected to curtail and then end the lander's activities before the end of the year.

 

The lander’s meteorological component is a collaboration led by York University, in partnership with the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), the Finnish Meteorological Institute, MDA Space Missions, and Optech Inc., with $37 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency. The mission is a joint project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the University of Arizona.

 

Media contact:
Melissa Hughes, Media Relations, York University: 416 736 2100 x22097, mehughes@yorku.ca

York University is the leading interdisciplinary research and teaching university in Canada. York offers a modern, academic experience at the undergraduate and graduate level in Toronto, Canada’s most international city. The third largest university in the country, York is host to a dynamic academic community of 50,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, as well as 190,000 alumni worldwide. York’s 11 faculties and 26 research centres conduct ambitious, groundbreaking research that is interdisciplinary, cutting across traditional academic boundaries. This distinctive and collaborative approach is preparing students for the future and bringing fresh insights and solutions to real-world challenges. York University is an autonomous, not-for-profit corporation.

 

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