Though it lacks the wow factor that would come from finding life on the Red Planet, scientists have discovered that Mars shares another thing in common with Earth — snowflakes.
Of course the similarities are a bit of a stretch. Earthling snowflakes are made of water, and large enough to see by the naked eye. On Mars, snowflakes are made of carbon dioxide and are roughly the size of a human beings’ red blood cell.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that researchers at MIT discovered the size of the snowflakes by using temperature and pressure profiles taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and using a laser altimeter, which gauged the landscape of Mars, timing how long laser pulses took to bounce back from the planet’s surface. Sometimes, the beam returned faster than expected after bouncing off cloud particles.
Then, analyzing how much light these clouds reflected, the researchers were able to calculate the density of carbon dioxide in each one.
The “flakes” would appear more like a fog to the naked eye.
So what are the applications of this new information? Turns out it could help scientists better understand the Martian climate.
National Geographic reports that precipitation, including the water-based snow crystals on Earth, usually form around atmospheric particles such as dust. The carbon dioxide crystals might not need dust grains to form — instead they somehow form on their own from the air.
National Geographic writes, “a better understanding of how the snow particles range in size may therefore yield insight into how much of the sun’s energy the planet absorb — the process that drives Martian climate.”