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Planetary scientists have long thought that Mars’ equatorial regions were too sunny and its atmosphere too thin to support frost or ice, but new images suggest otherwise.

In a new article published in Natural GeosciencesIt was announced that the European Space Agency’s ExoMars and Mars Express missions have discovered water frost near the Martian equator for the first time, on the Tharsis volcanoes, the highest volcanoes in the solar system.

The region is home to the colossal Olympus Mons – three times higher than Mount Everest – and the shield volcanoes Tharsis Montes.

Exciting discovery

“We thought it was impossible for frost to form on Mars’ equator because the mix of sunshine and a thin atmosphere keeps temperatures relatively high both at the surface and on mountain tops,” said lead author Adomas Valantinas, who made the discovery while doing his doctoral studies at the University of Bern in Switzerland and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University in the US.

“Its existence here is exciting and suggests that extraordinary processes are underway that enable frost formation,” he said.

Unique microclimate

Mars is not like Earth, where frosty peaks are common. Mars has low atmospheric pressure, meaning mountain peaks are about the same temperature as the plains. Scientists believe moist air blows up mountain slopes and condenses as frost in the colder calderas of the Tharsis volcanoes. The air circulates in a way that creates a microclimate never seen before.

The amount of frost found on Mars is equivalent to about 60 Olympic swimming pools. It has been detected in very thin patches but covers a huge area. It only exists for a few hours around sunrise before evaporating in sunlight.

Long overdue discovery?

The frost was discovered by ExoMars TGO and Mars Express, which have been conducting orbital research since 2018 and 2003, respectively. So why did it take so long to find this microclimate on Mars? “We need an orbit that allows us to observe a site in the early morning,” said Valantinas. Of the seven orbiters around Mars, all but ExoMars TGO and Mars Express are synchronized with the sun and can therefore only study Mars in the afternoon.

But there’s another reason. “The deposition of frost is linked to the colder seasons on Mars, which makes the window for its detection even narrower,” said Valantinas. “We need to know where and when to look for short-lived frost. We happened to look for it near the equator while doing other research, but we didn’t expect to find it on the volcanic peaks of Mars.”

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