In 2008, a York University-led team of Canadian scientists discovered snow falling from Martian clouds – a first. It was detected approximately four kilometres above the Phoenix spacecraft’s landing site.
Sept. 29, 2008 – A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars detected the snow. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.
“Nothing like this view has ever been seen on Mars,” said York University Professor Jim Whiteway, lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied meteorological station on Phoenix, who announced the findings today during a news briefing at NASA’s Washington headquarters. “We’ll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground.”
The meteorological station gathers crucial information about the climate on Mars, and provides a comprehensive picture of the atmosphere at the landing site, 1,200 kilometres from the planet’s north pole. It consists of temperature, wind and pressure sensors, as well as a laser-based-light-detecting-and-ranging (lidar) system. The lidar shoots pulses of laser light into the Martian sky, precisely measuring components of the atmosphere, such as dust, ground fog and clouds, from the surface up to a range of 20 kilometres.
At the briefing, NASA announced that experiments have provided evidence of past interaction between minerals and liquid water, processes that occur on Earth.
Experiments also yielded clues pointing to calcium carbonate, the main composition of chalk, and particles that could be clay. Most carbonates and clays on Earth form only in the presence of liquid water.
Since landing on May 25, Phoenix confirmed that a hard subsurface layer at its far-northern site contains water-ice. Determining whether that ice ever thaws would help answer whether the environment there has been favorable for life, a key aim of the mission.
The Phoenix mission, originally planned for three months on Mars, has begun its fifth month. However, it faces a decline in solar energy that is expected to curtail and then end the lander’s activities before the end of the year.
The lander’s meteorological component is a collaboration led by York University, in partnership with the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), the Finnish Meteorological Institute, MDA Space Missions and Optech Inc., with $37 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency. The mission is a joint project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the University of Arizona.