June 17 (UPI) -- New research suggests the wispy clouds found 18 miles above the Marian surface are made of icy dust produced by meteors hitting the Red Planet's atmosphere.
The findings -- published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience -- are a reminder of the connection between space and atmospheric dynamics.
"We're used to thinking of Earth, Mars and other bodies as these really self-contained planets that determine their own climates," lead researcher Victoria Hartwick, a graduate student in the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in a news release. "But climate isn't independent of the surrounding solar system."
For a cloud to form, water vapor must have something to condense onto. On Earth, water vapors condense onto tiny dust or sea salt particles. The same cloud-starting particles aren't available on Mars. The Red Planet has dust, but the particles aren't blown 18 miles up into Mars' middle atmosphere.
Scientists estimated meteors could explain the high-elevation clouds. Two to three dots of space debris slams into the Martian atmosphere everyday. When the bits of space rock collide with Mars' atmosphere, dust explodes into the middle and upper layers of the atmosphere.
Researchers built a detailed simulation to see how space dust is incorporated into the Martian atmosphere. The findings showed meteor dust fuels Mars' cloud formation.
"Our model couldn't form clouds at these altitudes before," Hartwick said. "But now, they're all there, and they seem to be in all the right places."
The clouds found in Mars' middle atmosphere are small and sparse, but they can impact Mars' climate. The research showed the clouds can trigger temperature swings. By studying Mars' clouds and its atmospheric dynamics, researchers might be able to accurately model the evolution of the Red Planet's atmosphere.
"More and more climate models are finding that the ancient climate of Mars, when rivers were flowing across its surface and life might have originated, was warmed by high altitude clouds," said Brian Toon, a researcher at CU-Boulder. "It is likely that this discovery will become a major part of that idea for warming Mars."