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Meteor 'smoke' may spawn cotton candy clouds on Mars

By Nola Taylor Redd
June 18, 2019, 8:03:25 AM EDT

mars image june 18 2019

A computer simulation shows middle-altitude clouds on Mars .(Photo/Victoria Hartwick)

Cotton candy clouds in the middle atmosphere of Mars may owe their life to dying meteors.

New research suggests that the atmospheric destruction of meteors creates tiny particles of dust that can seed the thin clouds. The discovery may help solve the mystery of how the wispy clouds grow in the middle atmosphere, improving scientists' understanding of the Martian climate both of today and in the past.

"Clouds don't just form on their own," Victoria Hartwick, a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author on the new paper, said in a statement. "They need something that they can condense onto."

On Earth, water molecules stick to tiny grains of sea salt or dust blown into the air until they form the white wisps visible from the ground as clouds. But Mars lacks sea salt, and scientists haven't been able to explain the presence of midatmospheric clouds by studying dust particles on the Red Planet.

Nevertheless, Mars and Earth have another cloud seed in common. Previous studies have shown that dust from destroyed meteors, known as meteoritic smoke, may help build clouds near Earth's poles. Hartwick and her colleagues investigated if meteoritic smoke could similarly create the clouds that hover in the middle atmosphere of Mars, below other known types of clouds.

"Our model couldn't form clouds at these altitudes before [we included meteorite impacts]," Hartwick said. "But now, they're all there, and they seem to be in all the right places."

The research was published June 17 in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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