Saturday science subject: Snow on Mars

— 12:03 PM on October 4, 2008

"When the weather outside is frightful..."

As winter approaches, some parts of the world are getting their first snow. Some parts of the solar system, too. Believe it or not, NASA has announced that its Phoenix Mars Lander caught a glimpse of falling snow on the red planet.

A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars has detected snow from clouds about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) above the spacecraft's landing site. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

"Nothing like this view has ever been seen on Mars," said Jim Whiteway, of York University, Toronto, lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied Meteorological Station on Phoenix. "We'll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground."

This encounter follows Phoenix's discovery and analysis of water ice on Mars. NASA now says, "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 latest findings certainly seem encouraging: Phoenix has dug up calcium carbonates as well as "particles that could be clay," and both substances typically require liquid water to form on Earth.

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