The red planet, with an atmosphere 100 times thinner than Earth's, appears to be dusty and arid. However, scientists believe that Mars' climate used to resemble that of earth's — complete with fluffy clouds and liquid water. In fact, scientists spend quite a bit of time studying Mars to fill in the gaps on why the planet's current atmosphere has changed drastically.
With the help of a laser aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, a robotic spacecraft that landed on Mars in 2008, French researchers have discovered that actual light snowfall seems to have occurred in 2008, taking multiple hours to drop just one mile. However, according to the new study, snow could actually be falling at a much higher rate than what previous data has shown, taking only five to 10 minutes to descend one mile. In comparison, snowflakes take at least 15 minutes to cover that distance, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global Surveyor reveals that on cold nights, when gusts of wind collide with clouds of water vapor in the Martian atmosphere with just the right amount of force, the water vapor transforms into icy particles that cause "microbursts" of snow flurries.
However, these snowflakes are a little different than the ones we're used to here on planet Earth. They're just a few micrometers thick and don't reach the surface before subliming to vapor, thanks to Mars' thin atmosphere.
"Although it contains less water vapor than Earth's atmosphere, the Martian atmosphere hosts clouds," according to lead author Aymeric Spiga of Sorbonne University, a planetary scientist at the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique.
"These clouds, composed of water-ice particles, influence the global transport of water vapor and the seasonal variations of ice deposits," he explained.
The lead author also compared the newfound snowfall on Mars to that on Earth.
"On Earth, the snowfall you can see with the naked eye, and we have snow crystals that you can actually see, while the snowflakes on Mars are much smaller," Spiga said.
The author added that, "The amount of water overall is quite small — so you won't be able to build any snowmen on Mars with that, and you won't be able to put up a ski station."
Further understanding of how these storms take place will help researchers understand what the Red Planet's atmosphere was like millions of years ago, when the planet's axial tilt toward the sun was different.
It sure is an exciting time for space enthusiasts, and there's still so much more to be discovered about the red planet.