Mars boasts the solar system’s biggest mountain, Olympus Mons, a 90,000 foot behemoth that’s three times as tall as Mt. Everest and so wide that from the view on top its base would extend beyond the horizon; and now, with the Curiosity rover grabbing headlines almost weekly, Mars is capturing our fascination perhaps more than any time since the controversial radio hoax that broadcast H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds in 1938.
Then, just last week, NASA discovered snowfall on Mars! Scientists with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, using data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, have discovered evidence of snow falling on the Red Planet’s south pole during the Martian winter. Their discovery will appear in an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
This is the first example of snowfall anywhere in our solar system besides Earth, but before you call CMH Heli-Skiing to see if we’ll be opening our next Heli-Skiing Lodge on Mars and going big off of reduced-gravity kickers and pillow drops, there’s a catch:
The snowfall on Mars is carbon dioxide snow, or precipitated “dry ice” as frozen carbon dioxide is better known. Carbon dioxide freezes at about -125C (-193F) so even Arc’teryx’s most futuristic technology wouldn’t protect a Martian powder skier.
According to the JPL press release the report's lead author, Paul Hayne, said, "These are the first definitive detections of carbon-dioxide snow clouds. We firmly establish the clouds are composed of carbon dioxide, flakes of Martian air, and they are thick enough to result in snowfall accumulation at the surface."
The data for the recent discovery was supplied by the Mars Climate Sounder, a device on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that measures changes in atmospheric temperature and composition using a wide range of channels across the electromagnetic spectrum to map the planet's atmosphere.
In 2008, the Phoenix Lander observed water-ice snow on Northern Mars, and the presence of carbon dioxide ice caps on the planet has been known for much longer. The latest Mars mission, Curiosity, has captured the imagination of both adults and children, with the very naming of the mission coming from a competition held among school children from K-12.
Clara Ma, a 6th grader from Kansas, won the competition with her essay, Curiosity:
Curiosity is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone's mind. It makes me get out of bed in the morning and wonder what surprises life will throw at me that day. Curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn't be who we are today. When I was younger, I wondered, 'Why is the sky blue?', 'Why do the stars twinkle?', 'Why am I me?', and I still do. I had so many questions, and America is the place where I want to find my answers. Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder. Sure, there are many risks and dangers, but despite that, we still continue to wonder and dream and create and hope. We have discovered so much about the world, but still so little. We will never know everything there is to know, but with our burning curiosity, we have learned so much.
Her words embody the phrase, “Out of the mouth of babes oft times come gems.”
Much of what we enjoy in our modern lifestyle - including the very invention of skiing (the oldest evidence found dates back about 7000 years), lift-serviced skiing, and eventually CMH's invention that we now call Heli-Skiing - owes its inspiration to the seemingly limitless human curiosity.
As a skier who has been lucky enough to taste our world's greatest skiing, I can't help but be curious about what it would be like to shred huge Martian peaks, ripping turns in crystalline dry ice. For starters, those Martian face shots would really hurt.
Photo composite of Jordy demonstrating a Martian Kicker in the Bugaboos by Topher Donahue.