Scientists Discover Water Frost On Martian Volcanoes, The Tallest In The Solar System

hero mars frosty olympus mons
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars and Mars Express missions made an incredible find on the Red Planet recently. For the first time, water frost has been spotted near Mar’s equator, a location once thought "impossible" for frost to exist.

The exploration of Mars continues to surprise researchers. This time around, the surprise came atop the tallest volcano, not only on Mars, but in the entire Solar System, according to the ESA. The first to make the discovery of frost in the peculiar location was ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, and later again by ESA’s Mars Express.

“We thought it was impossible for frost to form around Mars’s equator, as the mix of sunshine and thin atmosphere keeps temperatures relatively high at both surface and mountaintop – unlike what we see on Earth, where you might expect to see frosty peaks,” explained lead author Adomas Valantinas, who made the discovery as a PhD student at University of Bern, Switzerland. Valantinas added, “Its existence is exciting, and hints that there are exceptional processes at play that are allowing frost to form.”

topography tharsis region mars
Context map based on data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) experiment.

One reason that the patches of frost may not have been detected sooner is they are only present for a few hours around sunrise, before the heat from sunlight evaporates them. Researchers believe the patches to be very thin, likely one-hundredth of a millimeter thick, or around the thickness of a human hair. While the patches may be thin, the new research shows the frost covers a “vast area.” The ESA reported that the amount of frost each day “represents about 150,000 tons of water swapping between surface and atmosphere each day during the cold seasons.” That would equate to approximately 60 Olympic swimming pools.

The volcanoes are located in the Tharsis region of the Red Planet, ranging in height from one (Pavonis Mons) to three (Olympus Mons) times that of Earth’s Mount Everest. At the summit of the volcanoes are calderas, or large hollows, which formed as magma chambers emptied following past eruptions. Researchers hypothesize that air circulates in a “peculiar” way above the Tharsis region, creating a unique microclimate within each caldera, and thus allowing for frost to form.

“Winds travel up the slopes of the mountains, bringing relatively moist air from near the surface up to higher altitudes, where it condenses and settles as frost,” remarked co-author Nicolas Thomas, Principal Investigator of TGO’s Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) and Adomas’s PhD supervisor at the University of Bern. “We actually see this happening on Earth and other parts of Mars, with the same phenomenon causing the seasonal Martian Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud.”

As humans move toward one day setting foot on the surface of Mars, finds such as finding frost near Mars’ equator will play an important role. Also, the more researchers can understand the different phenomena between Earth and Mars, it will help them gain a better understanding of basic processes happening on both planets.
Tags:  space, mars, Earth, ESA, volcano