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Mysterious Plume Observed Over Mars: Cloud Or Aurora?

Images of a mysterious plume observed above planet Mars back in 2012 by amateur astronomers have been documented by scientists and published in the journal Nature. The haze is said to have appeared two times before disappearing.

plume on Mars

a: first event on 22 March, 04:12 UTC. Photo credits: W.J. b: second event on 13 April, 20:03 UTC. Photo credits: D. Peach

Spotting the plume

Among the amateurs having captured the images is Damian Peach.

In a statement to BBC News, he described how he discovered it: “I noticed this projection sticking out of the side of the planet. To begin with, I thought there was a problem with the telescope or camera. But as I checked more of the images, I realised it was a real feature – and it was quite a surprise.”

Description of the plume

The plume was first seen in March 2012 over the planet’s southern hemisphere.

The plume was found to extend over 1 000 km, the largest that has been seen.

It was spotted for around 10 days, after which it disappeared. It became visible again the next month, and remained visible for another 10 days to never be spotted again afterwards.

Cloud of carbon dioxide or aurora?

The images have been examined by scientists who are of the opinion that the plume might have been a large cloud of carbon dioxide or water particles, or an extremely bright aurora.

The formation of the plume remains foggy. Scientists have not yet deciphered how it could have been created in the thin upper parts of the atmosphere of Mars. The plume has left the researchers puzzled.

Clouds have been observed over Mars before, but only at altitudes of 100 km. But, the plume was at 200 km. The researchers argued that the atmosphere is too thin for there to be clouds, hence why the plume has been described as a surprising occurrence.

It raises more questions than answers,” said Antonio Garcia Munoz, a planetary scientist from the European Space Agency.

Another theory is that the plume is much like the Northern or Southern lights. Auroras have been spotted in that region of the planet before. However, if indeed it is an aurora, it would be of much higher intensity that those seen on both Mars and the Earth (1 000 times higher than the strongest aurora).

If any of the two possibilities is right, our current understanding of the upper atmosphere of Mars would be extremely flawed.

Meanwhile, scientists just have to wait for the plumes to appear again to gain further insight.

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