Mars has returned to our evening skies as it does every two years. This time it is getting even more attention and buzz than it normally would. Amateur astronomer Wayne Jaeschke of West Chester Pennsylvania noticed an unusual protrusion in the planet's southern hemisphere, preceding the sunrise terminator.
He first noticed this formation on the evening of March 20th. Jaeschke alerted the international Mars observing community about the odd "extension" at 190.5° east, 43.7° south, just before the area that rotates into daylight. The odd feature was visible in all color-filtered exposures from near-infrared to blue light. Jaeschke produced the animation below.
From Jaeschke's website, it appears he is using a 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope along with an imaging system that includes a Point Grey Research Flea3 monochrome CCD camera with Astrodon and Astronomik Diochroic filters. He notes that in the animation above it is a 5-frame animation of the green-light images. The feature appears in all the channels, but is most visible in blue and green while least visible in IR. The feature also moves with the planet.
The strange formation was also reportedly captured by other amateur astronomers over the past few nights. Some astronomers in Europe have seen it as far back as March 12th.
Past reported projections on the terminator have been caused by either white clouds or suspended dust. Typically observers report them with large telescopes when the planet is close to quadrature (90 degrees from the Sun), when Mars is at its most gibbous state, illuminated by less than 90%. A report like this is unusual because Mars is still near opposition.
Jonathon Hill, a member of the Mars Space Flight Facility at Arizona State University said "It's not completely unexpected. But it's bigger than we would expect, and it's definitely something that our atmosphere guys want to take a look at."
Hill and his team will be looking at the area of the formation using the Thermal Emission Imaging System or THEMIS, one of the instruments on the NASA Mars Odyssey orbiter. THEMIS will also check out heightened cloud activity around Mars' shield volcanoes as well as around the southern site spotted by the amateurs.
The formation has decreased in size over the past two days, but there is still time for both amateurs and professionals to pool their resources together and provide much needed information. This example is just another one of the importance of amateur astronomers and the impact they can make to help uncover mysteries and other events.
The Tech-Stew Take Home
Several things may have contributed to this strange "cloud formation". One possibility is a meteoric impact event, where dust was spewed up into the atmosphere. Another could be a major dust storm, which are typical on Mars. While the other possibility is the more mundane, that these observations were caused by a mere optical illusion via a type of glint that occurred due to having just the right combination of lighting and atmospheric conditions. Some suggest volcanic activity. It certainly is unlikely to be volcanic in nature, as Mars hasn't had volcanic activity in a long time. The youngest lava flows on Olympus Mons for instance, are about 20 to 200 million years old. Many think the flows of Olympus Mons represent the last bit of volcanic activity that Mars has had, though it's not to say that another event is completely out of the question either. I'll put a wager on the event just being a major dust storm that occurred at a time when viewing conditions were prime for this type of "formation" to be seen.
Scientists have analyzed the strange clouds on Mars and came to the conclusion that they were most likely a condensate cloud/haze, made up of H2O. This according to Bruce Cantor, senior staff scientist at Malin Space Science Systems. Apparently similar phenomena have been observed in early-morning orbital observations before. The composition is that of high-altitude water-ice, seems to be the accepted answer at this time.
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