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article imageScientists cannot explain strange plumes on Mars

By Stephen Morgan     Feb 17, 2015 in Science
Massive plumes soaring from the surface of Mars have left scientists mystified. As yet nobody can answer what they are or what is causing them and they are putting in question our whole understanding of the Martian atmosphere.
The plumes lasted for 11 days and reached altitudes of 250 km (155 miles) and 1,000 km (62 miles) across. This has occurred twice in the past, but the plumes have never exceeded a height of 100 km (62 miles) before.
The plumes were first spotted back in 2012 by amateur astronomers in Australia and France and have been validated by professions. One of the amateurs, Damian Peach who captured images of the phenomenon told BBC News:
"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."
Space Ref quotes Sanchez-Lavega who explained some of the hypotheses the scientists are discussing.
"One idea we've discussed is that the features are caused by a reflective cloud of water-ice, carbon dioxide-ice or dust particles, but this would require exceptional deviations from standard atmospheric circulation models to explain cloud formations at such high altitudes"
At the height the plumes reached, the atmosphere should be too thin for them to survive. The lower clouds seen before were made of dust and ice and could exist in the normal Martian atmosphere. But the new plumes shouldn't have any chance of surviving at the altitudes they reached, which was just at the point where the atmosphere ends and space begins.
National Geographic quotes Bruce Jakosky, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who wasn't on the research team, but is head of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), who said,
"I find the observation puzzling....It's hard to see how particles would get up that high." If they were to, he says, "there are winds at these altitudes, and I would expect that they would redistribute or dissipate a cloud relatively quickly."
The other theory is that this could be something similar to the auroras or northern and southern lights we see on Earth. Dr Garcia Munoz said that perhaps
"they are related to an auroral emission, and indeed auroras have been previously observed at these locations, linked to a known region on the surface where there is a large anomaly in the crustal magnetic field. But the intensities we are reporting are much much higher than any auroras seen before on Mars or on Earth. It would be 1,000 times stronger than the strongest aurora, and it is difficult to come to terms that Mars has such an intense aurora."
The problem with this theory is that astronomers didn't observe any exceptional activity coming from the sun, which would be necessary to create such dazzling displays.
Researchers acknowledged that both explanations are inadequate. National Geographic quotes Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of the Universidad del Pas Vasco in Spain, the lead author of the paper on the phenomenon published in the journal Nature, who said that, ""Any explanation we can think of challenges our understanding of the upper atmosphere of Mars."
The plumes have now disappeared and scientists are awaiting further occurrences, in order to continue their research and solve the riddle of what is really happening on the red planet.
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