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An enormous Martian cloud returns every spring. Scientists found out why

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A cloud longer than California streaks across Mars‘ ruddy cheek. It looks as though an impressionist painter loaded his palette knife with white and scraped a line across the canvas as far as the oily paint would travel.

This is not what astrophysicist Jorge Hernández Bernal first saw in 2018 when the Mars Express Visual Monitoring Camera(Opens in a new window) — affectionately known by the European Space Agency as the Mars webcam(Opens in a new window) — posted a new picture. To the average eye, it was grainy and inscrutable, with the resolution of a standard computer camera circa 20 years ago. But Bernal, who was studying Martian meteorology at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, immediately recognized the shadow as something else: a mysterious weather phenomenon happening on the Red Planet.

It wasn’t until researchers looked at the cloud with better equipment that Mars revealed the cloud in all its sprawling glory. The team dug deeper into photo archives, and discovered it had frequently been there. It was there through the aughts, and it was even there during NASA‘s Viking 2 mission(Opens in a new window) in the 1970s.

A low-resolution camera on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe first captured the enormous cloud in 2018.
Credit: ESA

The secret had been knowing when to look for it.

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“There were people thinking ESA was faking it,” Bernal told Mashable. “It was a bit hard because I was really young at the time [of the discovery], and I was on Twitter trying to speak to people.”

Bernal and his team published their observations in 2020, dubbing it the Arsia Mons Elongated Cloud, or AMEC for short. With the cloud spanning 1,100 miles, scientists believe it could be the longest of its kind in the solar system. That work was followed with a second report, recently published(Opens in a new window) in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, revealing just how the volcano makes this extraordinary cloud, alone in an otherwise cloudless southern Mars that time of year.

“There were people thinking ESA was faking it.”

How scientists discovered Mars’ long cloud

For decades, the icy cloud arrived at sunrise on the western slope of Arsia Mons(Opens in a new window), an extinct volcano. The once lava-spewing ancient mountain is about 270 miles wide at the base and soars 11 miles into the sky. It dwarfs Mauna Loa, the largest Earth volcano, which is about half its height.

The curious case of the gigantic cloud is how it escaped notice for so long. But some of the spacecraft around Mars, such as NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are in orbits synchronized with the sun, meaning their cameras can’t take pictures until the afternoon. By that time, the fleeting cloud, which lasts only about three hours in the morning, is already gone.

The Mars Webcam wasn’t originally meant for science. Its purpose was to provide visual confirmation that ESA’s Beagle 2 lander(Opens in a new window) had separated from the Mars Express spacecraft in 2003. In hindsight, the space agency is glad it decided to turn the basic camera back on(Opens in a new window).

Mars Express spacecraft orbiting Mars
A simple camera not even intended for science on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft photographed the enormous cloud.
Credit: ESA

Just as southern Mars experiences spring, the cloud grows and stretches, making a wispy tail like a steam locomotive, over the mountain’s summit. Then, in a matter of hours, the cloud completely fades away in the warm sunlight.

For a young scientist working on his doctorate degree, the natural wonder became a sort of muse. While the realist in him said that recreational space travel is impractical — perhaps even unethical given the world’s climate problems — he couldn’t help but try to draw what the cloud might look like from the ground.

“I keep imagining how it would be for a little civilization to have this huge cloud every year at the same time, like maybe the solstice is something for them like a coat,” he said, smiling. “This is the imagination part.”

Why Mars’ Arsia Mons makes the gigantic cloud

So what makes this strange, stringy cloud?

For starters, it’s not smoke billowing from a volcanic eruption. Scientists have long-known the volcanoes of the Red Planet(Opens in a new window) are dead. Rather, it’s the so-called “orographic effect:” the physics of air rising over a mountain or volcano.

The researchers ran a high-resolution computer simulation of Arsia Mons’ effect on the atmosphere. Strong winds whip at its foot, making gravity waves. Moist air is then temporarily squeezed and driven up the mountainside. Those drafts blow up to 45 mph, forcing the temperature to plunge by more than 54 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows water to condense and freeze at about 28 miles above the volcano’s peak.


“I keep imagining how it would be for a little civilization to have this huge cloud every year at the same time, like maybe the solstice is something for them like a coat.”

Arsia Mons cloud returning year after year
The enormous Arsia Mons cloud returns year after year in Mars’ springtime for about 80 days.
Credit: ESA

For about five to ten percent of the Martian year, the atmosphere is just right(Opens in a new window) to make the cloud, with the dusty sky helping moisture cling to the air. Too early in the year and the air would be too dry, according to the team’s model. Too late in the year and the climate would be too warm for water condensation.

But though the scientists’ simulation was successful in forming the cloud under Arsia Mons’ unique conditions, it could not replicate the cloud’s lengthy tail. Scientists say that’s the biggest question of the moment — a mystery that could be solved with spectrometers, devices on spacecraft that identify the kinds of particles in a substance. A closer study of the cloud’s water ice might give researchers more clues.

“I would like to see this cloud with my eyes, but I know where my place is,” Bernal said. “Sometimes we think of space like a utopia. I am happy looking at it from [Earth, through] my spacecraft.”

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Kemptville author’s book being sent to the moon

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One of Michael Blouin’s books is going to be launched into space on a microdisk and stay on the surface of the moon. (Submitted by Michael Blouin)

An author from North Grenville, Ont., is going to be part of a small club of authors whose works will be sent to the moon.

Michael Blouin of Kemptville says he’s been interested in space travel since the Apollo 11 mission that landed humans on the moon for the first time.

To be part of a group of hundreds of authors having their work immortalized within the vast expanse of space has him “gobsmacked.”

“I take comfort in the fact that no matter what happens, it looks like my books … will survive and be there,” he said.

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“I sometimes wake up at night and say ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to the moon. Wow.’ It’s kind of amazing.”

How it came to be

Blouin said he’s been a lifelong fan of NASA and space exploration, so when the opportunity to get his work in the Writers on the Moon project came up, he had to take it.

Then around the deadline to apply, his house burned down.

Amid the chaos of not having anywhere to live and then moving into his son’s house, he realized he’d missed his chance.

“I had missed the deadline to apply for this program for books to go to the moon by 12 hours and I was just kicking myself,” he said.

“I lost everything and now I’d missed out on my chance to do something I’d always dreamed about doing.”

Luckily a friend and author in Newfoundland, Carolyn R. Parsons, said she had managed to get some of her work included in the project and had enough space on her microdisk to include him as well.

A rocket sits upright.
This rocket will carry a lander and books from a couple hundred authors up to the moon. (United Launch Alliance)

When do the books go?

The NASA launch is scheduled for Feb. 25 at Cape Canaveral in Florida, which will see his book Skin House brought to the stars along with other works of independent fiction.

Blouin is getting the chance to see the launch.

“These launches sometimes get delayed due to technical reasons or due to weather,” he said.

“But I’m hoping to give myself a big enough window that I’ll actually be on site.”

Blouin had some advice for people who aspire to write or create.

“Any young person aspiring in the arts just shouldn’t give up. Keep trying,” he said. “It can be a tough go but it’s worth every moment.”

He’s getting another of his books — I am Billy the Kid — up to the moon in 2024.

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Green comet zooming our way, last visited 50,000 years ago – Cochrane Today

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years.

The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years.

So do look up, contrary to the title of the killer-comet movie “Don’t Look Up.”

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Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By Feb. 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark.

Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.

While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas.

Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).

On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 kilometers). Its nucleus is thought to be about a mile (1.6 kilometers) across, with its tails extending millions of miles (kilometers).

The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid to late 1990s.

But “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage … which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.

Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations putting the comet’s last swing through the solar system’s planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

When it returns, though, is tougher to judge.

Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun.

“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said.

The comet — a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago — came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star.

While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.

Don’t fret if you miss it.

“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.”

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

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How to spot the planets hiding in plain sight – CBC.ca

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This video was produced by Trevor Kjorlien as part of the CBC Creator Network. Learn more about the Creator Network here.

Most people are aware that if you live in the city, light pollution limits your view of the night sky. If you want to see lots of stars, comets and the Milky Way, you have to get out into the countryside, where the sky is dark.

However noble the cause, awareness campaigns to educate people about light pollution have had an unintended side effect: people think you can’t see anything in the urban night sky except a handful of bright stars and the moon.

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So if you are a city dweller and you don’t look up, what are you missing out on?

The planets.

Even in the most light-polluted skies, we can see five planets with the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

If you’d been walking through Montreal’s Jeanne-Mance Park in the early morning of June 26, 2022, you would have seen the planet Venus above the city skyline, next to the crescent moon. (Trevor Kjorlien/CBC Creator Network)

How to find the planets

It’s not unusual to be able to see the planets. Normally, some appear in the evening and some in the morning, depending on where they are in their orbit around the sun.

How do you know when and where to look?

In June 2022, we had a rare opportunity: all the naked-eye planets were visible in the early morning. At dawn, you could see all five of them lined up before the sun rose and washed their light away.

Why did they appear to line up, as they did then?

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In the northern hemisphere, the sun appears to move through the sky in the south.

Now imagine a line was drawn out behind the sun as it travels in the sky through the day. Astronomers call this “the path of the ecliptic.”

In a rare sight, the planets lined up in the southern sky above downtown Montréal on the early morning of June 26, 2022, roughly following the path of the ecliptic. (Trevor Kjorlien/CBC Creator Network)

At night, you can roughly follow this imaginary line, and that’s where the planets can be found. This is because the planets all orbit the Sun on the same plane, much like a frisbee or a vinyl record. Because all the planets travel more or less on the same plane, from our view on Earth, they appear to line up and are always visible in the southern sky from the northern hemisphere.

Embedded in our daily lives

We can see seven significant celestial objects with the naked eye: the sun, the moon and the five planets closest to the sun.

Test yourself: what day are you reading this article? Which celestial object does this day refer to? (Trevor Kjorlien/CBC Creator Network)

Where else do we see the number seven in our day-to-day lives?

In the calendar.

Through the magic of myth and etymology, each day of the week corresponds to these celestial objects.

  • Monday is moon day, named for the moon. (In French, la lune becomes lundi.)
  • Tuesday, named for Tiw, the Germanic god of war, corresponds to the Roman war god Mars (in French, mardi).
  • Wednesday is named for Woden, the Germanic god corresponding to the Roman god Mercury (in French, mercredi).
  • Thursday is named for Thor, the Norse god corresponding to the Roman god Jupiter. (In French, from the Latin Jovis, a name for Jupiter, we get jeudi.)
  • Friday is named for Frigga, the Germanic goddess corresponding to the Roman goddess of love, Venus (in French, vendredi).
  • Saturday is named for Saturn.
  • Sunday is named for the sun.

Think about which day you’re reading this. Which celestial object does it correspond to?

Not only are the planets hiding in plain sight in the urban night sky, they’re hiding in our calendars — embedded in our daily lives.


The Creator Network, which works with emerging visual storytellers to bring their stories to CBC platforms, produced the piece. If you have an idea for the Creator Network, you can send your pitch here.

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