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Mysterious plumes above the surface of Mars have scientists stumped. The article updated on 4/9/2018.

Mystery Plume on Mars

Figure 1 above has an image was taken on March 20, 2012 by W. Jaeschke. Had it been taken after August 6 that year we would have had weather data from the Mars Science Laboratory, however we still can say this much. The North Pole is at the bottom of the picture, Mars was at Solar Longitude (Ls) 85.4, Sol, 184. This was late spring in the northern hemisphere, late fall in the southern hemisphere below the cloud.

Figure 2 above shows the plume in question in March to April 2012. Figure 3 below shows a lower plume in 1997.

Mystery Plume on Mars

6 February 2015

       Plumes seen reaching high above the surface of Mars are causing a stir among scientists studying the atmosphere on the Red Planet.

       On two separate occasions in March and April 2012, amateur astronomers reported definite plume-like features developing on the planet.

The plumes were seen rising to altitudes of over 250 km above the same region of Mars on both occasions. By comparison, similar features seen in the past have not exceeded 100 km.

       “At about 250 km, the division between the atmosphere and outer space is very thin, so the reported plumes are extremely unexpected,” says Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of the Universidad del País Vasco in Spain, lead author of the paper reporting the results in the journal Nature.

       The features developed in less than 10 hours, covering an area of up to 1000 x 500 km, and remained visible for around 10 days, changing their structure from day to day.

       None of the spacecraft orbiting Mars saw the features because of their viewing geometries and illumination conditions at the time.

       However, checking archived Hubble Space Telescope images taken between 1995 and 1999 and of databases of amateur images spanning 2001 to 2014 revealed occasional clouds at the limb of Mars, albeit usually only up to 100 km in altitude.

ROFFMAN COMMENT: The altitude of this event does appear to be a record, however, as we discuss in Section 10.1 of our Report entitled Mars Correct: Critique of All NASA Mars Weather Data, With Emphasis on Pressure:

10.1 Mars Global Surveyor (MGS).   

When MGS was launched in 1996, the intent was to achieve a circular pole-to-pole, Sun-synchronous orbit around Mars with an altitude of approximately 300 km above the surface and an orbital period of just under 2 hours. In an attempt to accomplish this orbit using minimal fuel, MGS used aerobraking. It was deliberately flown through the upper atmosphere of Mars during periapse to use the aerodynamic drag forces to modify its orbital parameters.  The effort did not go as planned and the early maneuvers led to excessive decelerations (Read & Lewis 2004, 11).78

If Mars has a higher than expected atmospheric density, it would explain unexpected excessive decelerations.  As shown in Figure 38 and discussion below, it is believed that a dust storm produced the unexpected drag, but the effects at a normalized altitude of 121 km (75 miles) seem quite high for a planet that is supposed to have an average surface pressure of only about 6.1 mbar. 

Johnston et al.  (1998)81 reported that (1) “On the onset of a dust storm, the atmospheric density could more than double in a 48 hour time period,” (see Figure 4 below) and (2) “If during aerobraking, the spacecraft experiences dynamic pressure values greater than this limit line, the periapsis altitude of the orbit must be raised immediately in order to re-establish the 90% atmospheric density capability.”  Both happened. 

       Note the tremendous increase in dynamic pressure shown on Figure 38.  At an altitude normalized to 121 km, the dust storm caused dynamic pressure to rise from about 0.15 N/m2 on November 9th, 1997 to 0.84 N/mon December 7, 1997. While the Johnson et al. (1998) article referred to atmospheric density more than doubling during a dust storm, the increase in dynamic pressure felt at 121 km over four weeks was 5.6 times the pre-storm values. 

References for the above can be found on our site here.

But one set of Hubble images from 17 May 1997 revealed an abnormally high plume, similar to that spotted by the amateur astronomers in 2012.

       Scientists are now working on determining the nature and cause of the plumes by using the Hubble data in combination with the images taken by amateurs.

       “One idea we’ve discussed is that the features are caused by a reflective cloud of water-ice, carbon dioxide-ice or dust particles, but this would require exceptional deviations from standard atmospheric circulation models to explain cloud formations at such high altitudes,” says Agustin.

       “Another idea is that they are related to an auroral emission, and indeed auroras have been previously observed at these locations, linked to a known region on the surface where there is a large anomaly in the crustal magnetic field,” adds Antonio Garcia Munoz, a research fellow at ESA’s ESTEC and co-author of the study.

       The jury is still out on the nature and genesis of these curious high-altitude Martian plumes. Further insights should be possible following the arrival of ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at the Red Planet, scheduled for launch in 2016.

Notes for Editors

“An extremely high altitude plume seen at Mars morning terminator,” by A. Sánchez-Lavega et al. is published in the 16 February 2015 issue of the journalNature.

The ground-based images were provided by astronomers W. Jaeschke, D. Parker, J. Phillips and D. Peach.

For further information, please contact:

Markus Bauer

ESA Science and Robotic Exploration Communication Officer

Tel: +31 71 565 6799

Mob: +31 61 594 3 954

Email: markus.bauer@esa.int

Agustin Sanchez-Lavega
Universidad del País Vasco UPV/EHU
Email: agustin.sanchez@ehu.es

Antonio Garcia Munoz
Email: agarcia@cosmos.esa.int

Figure 4 - Actual Dynamic Pressure Normalized to an Altitude of 121 km (reproduced from Johnson, et al, 1998)

Discussion about the location. The closest lander that has been sent to this part of the planet was the Spirit Rover which touched down at about 14.8° South, 184.5° West at Gusev Crater.  The Spirit mission ended in May 25, 2011, about 10 months before the plumes were seen.

Discussion about the cyclic nature of the cloud. What are we to make of the statement that "the features exhibited day-to-day variability, and were seen at the morning terminator but not at the evening limb, which indicates rapid evolution in less than 10 hours and a cyclic behavior?" Does anything else have such a short period on Mars? While the gravity of the Martian moon Phobos is quite low, the moon (just 3,700 miles/6,000 km miles up) orbits the planet in only 7 hours 39.2 minutes. Because it orbits the planet faster than than Mars rotates, the moon appears to rise in the west and set in the east twice every Martian day. Phobos is small (27 X 22 X 18 km), and the escape velocity is only 11.39 meters per second. Could the small gravitational tug affect the molecules in the cloud seen? This would require a lot to prove, not the least of which is how much less than 10 hours it took to have the cloud disappear each Martian day (sol).

Two scenarios advanced by A. Sanchez-Lavega (et al. 2015). 


The first involves H2O-ice, CO2-ice or dust. They ruled out dust for the 1997 event and found only marginal agreement in 2012 with Mie theory and wavelength-dependent indices of refraction. The best fit was for CO2 or H2O ice particles with effective radii of 0.1+0.1 to -0.0004 microns. This they indicate was consistent with the size of mesospheric clouds observed at night (Montmessin, F. et al. Hyperspectral imaging of convective on convective CO2 ice clouds in the equatorial mesosphere of Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 112, 11S90 (2007).


     Water condensation at the relevant altitude requires either anomalously cold thermosphere (with temperature drop >50 K or a unusual water mixing from 10-4 to complete saturation above 140 km. Carbon dioxide condensation would require would require an even larger temperature drop of 100 K above 125 km. But explaining the cloud would require vigorous vertical transport up to at least 180 km above the surface under high insolation likely to occur at noon. But the cloud was not visible at that that time of day. Bottom line, these even are difficult to support.

     The second idea is that the 2012 plume might be due to an aurora. Martian aurora have been seen near where the plume occurs, a region with a large anomaly in the crustal magnetic field (175° West) that can drive solar wind particles into the atmosphere. However, this hypothesis requires an exceptionalninflux of energetic particles over days, but solar  activity in March 2012 was not unusally high. Further, extrapolation from ultraviolet intensies to visible falls short of reported plume brightness by orders of magnitude.


     The plumes up to 155 mile high were not caused by asteroid impacts. We can say that because of their regular occurence at the same time over many days. However, asteroid impacts might explain earlier bright spots seen on Mars seen by telescopes on Earth.

     A friend of our family and former (controversial) NASA employee, Clark McClelland claimed to witness a flash on Mars, via the 13 inch Fitz-Clark refractor telescope at the Allegheny Observatory back in 1954.  He also sent us an article about Tsuneo Saheki of  the Osaka Planetarium who was viewing a 5.3 inch disc of Mars through an 8 inch Newtonian telescope at 400 power.  Saheki claimed to see a a very small, extremely bright spot appear at 2100 Universal time on December 8, 1951.  While Clark thought he was witnessing a volcanic eruption in 1954, such an event would probably not be bright enough to see through a telescope, but an impact would be - if the impact were on the side of Mars facing the Earth.  If it were on the side facing away from Earth, then the incident would appear unexplained unless we had an orbiter at the right time and place.

     Clark disputes the asteroid theory with a copy of a May 2001 Sky & Telescope article which cites him on pages 116 and 118.  It shows that the flare he observed at the Edom Promontorium on Mars on July 24, 1954 was also seen at the same spot on Mars by Saheki 23 days earlier on July 1, 1954 and seen again there by Ichiro Tasaka on November 21, 1958.  This would indicate a greater chance for a volcano there, but Tasaka also saw flares at the same night and at the same time in 1958 at Northern Hellas, which could be taken as evidence for an asteroid impact on Mars (Universal Times for the November 21, 1958 impacts at both Edom Promontorium and Northern Hellas were at 13:35 and 13:50).  Either event, an asteroid impact or a huge volcanic eruption could account for the Martian dust storm.

      Thomas A. Dobbins wrote in Sky & Telescope on March 4, 2004, that June 2001 observations support the idea that, “The flares came from sunlight glinting off patches of frost or ice on the Martian surface.” He states that “because the flashes occurred before Edom crossed the center of the planet's disk, the reflectors must have been tilted as much as 19° east-west; perhaps they rested on inclined surfaces on the ground, for example, the slopes of dunes. Intriguingly, the light-colored oval of Edom Promontorium corresponds to the large, flat crater Schiaparelli, and in May 2002 NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft found indications that this region is anomalously rich in water ice for a site near the Martian equator.”  Of course, water can also reflect light, but the presence of liquid water can only occur over a sustained set of observations if the surface pressure is higher than NASA admits.  Water would not stay tilted at the angle just indicated.  Note: Mars is geologically dead, so I tend to doubt that volcanoes could cause the flares. Mostly likely asteroid impacts are the culprits.

ANOTHER PLUME ON MARCH 25, 2017 RAISES THE QUESTION: IS THERE VOLCANIC ACTIVITY AT ALBA PATERA ON MARS, OR A NUCLEAR EVENT? On March 27, 2017 Marco de Marco published an article in Italian entitled Eruzione Vulcanica su Marte (Vulcanic Eruption on Mars?). The article is based on the new plume seen rising above Mars as shown on the following MarsWebCam image: Marco has of late become something of our partner. On September 3, 2017 he posted an extensive interview of my son and I that he conducted on his Planteta Marte.net web site. He has done much to spread our common findings about true Martian atmospheric condictions to members of the European Space Agency. What will follow here will first be a translation of his volcano article with comementary by me in dark blue bold fonts, and then I'll look at possible explanations that may be nuclear in nature with an eye towards what Dr. John Brandeburg has alleged about the distant Martian past.

On Saturday March 25, 2017, spanning the various news for our PianetaMarte.net scientific information page, I noticed the arrival of new photos by Mars Webcam. Though they do not normally attract my attention, in this case I noticed immediately the presence of a puff on the right side of the image of Mars. At first I thought it was a small defect in the image but as soon as I opened the ESA's Flickering page, I noticed that it was not just an artifact but that even there were ten images in which the above-mentioned puff appeared. Looking at the web, to date, I did not find any reference to this phenomenon and I decided to analyze all ten images in detail and to try to go back to the exact location where the phenomenon had occurred. As can be seen from the images, Mars appears as a thin squeak on which there are very few reference details, furthermore the information provided by ESA for the images was totally inadequate for the identification of the affected area.


As a first step then I have recorded and sequenced all ten images to try to understand the dynamics of the phenomenon. This allowed me to notice immediately that the images tended to rotate downwards and that in the last images the puff appeared clearly detached from the ground. Another aspect of these ten images is that they are taken with different exposure times to groups of three and spaced about one minute apart. Each group of three photos includes a longer exposure that tends to saturate much of the planet's image, a medium exposure and a shorter time when saturated areas are minimized; for clarity I will refer to them as long exposure, medium exposure and short exposure. The complete sequence then appears as a button because of the constant variation of the time available, so I decided to separate the three sequences so that the dynamics of the phenomenon can be better analyzed.

From an initial assessment of the last image, the one where the alleged area was supposed to be exactly on the profile of the planet's image, I obtained the scale of the image. Knowing the size of Mars and estimating the diameter that the full disk of the planet would have had in the image of Mars Webcam; the scale was found to be about 14 km / pixel. At this point I was able to trace the width and the altitude reached by the puff, which rose to an altitude of about 60 km with a diameter of about 360 km, a really impressive structure! A phenomenon of this magnitude can hardly be attributed to a sand storm that normally does not have a mushroom structure as in this case. From the animations one clearly sees a structure attached to the limbo of the planet for only a short stretch, while the rest of the "Puff" clearly shows a couple of black pixels between the puff and the surface of the limbo of the planet. This means something has spilled and has stratified between 50 and 60 km of altitude leaving a free space with a surface of about 20-30 km. Clearly a sand storm could not produce such a structure as the wind-driven sand tends to spread evenly from the surface to the quota reached. At this point, interest in a similar phenomenon has motivated me to try to identify the place that had generated this phenomenon, even though the operation itself was far from simple. First, I analyzed the direction of rotation shown by the animations. Already from this fact I was able to establish that the Northern Hemisphere was on the right and the left South. Next I used online programs that calculate the local solar time of some famous landing sites to find the reference longitude for dawn and sunset at the time of the image. With this information I could calculate the longitude of the visible terminator of the images. Knowing the solar longitude of Mars, (Ls 338.4) it was also possible to establish that the North Pole of Mars would be illuminated from about 80 ° latitude, allowing me to go back to the geographic coordinates of the point of interest. With my great surprise I found that the site of interest was a great volcano located in the Northern Hemisphere: Alba Mons

Note: As of September 7, 2017 we are still in the priocess of reading all the findings of Marco, but his claim above that on March 25, 2017 Mars would be illuminated from about 80 ° latitude allowed us to see if his math was correct. Using a spreadsheet developed by David to calculate daylight hours, we found that Marco's approximation was quite accurate. As the segment below indicates to 3 decimal places, at a latitude of 81.1556 degrees North at Ls 338.4 there would be about .02894 hours/1 minute 44 seconds of daylight (at 80 degrees North this time grows to about 3.845 hours of daylight).

λsun Latitude (phi)        Day Length = Daylight In Hours David's Calculation (=E value * 24)
 (0 for spring in northern hemisphere)  δdegrees =  arcsin((sin(25.19)*sin(λsun))   H = arccos((SIN(-.17) - SIN(lw)*SIN(δ))/(COS(lw)*COS(δ))) 2*1.027491*H/360
338.4 81.1556 -9.014340863 0.211249589 0.001205873 0.02894094
338.4  80 -9.014340863 28.06703754 0.160214603 3.845150463