NASA Simulates the Clouds on Mars Using a Supercomputer


We usually think of Mars as being an arid desert planet. And while that’s mainly true, there is some small amount of water on Mars, existing as vapor in the atmosphere. The planet even has its own water cycle, just like Earth, with the water rising into the atmosphere and forming delicate wispy clouds.

NASA’s Curiosity rover has snapped images of clouds rolling through the Martian sky, looking remarkably similar to what you might see on Earth. And 373 miles away, the Insight lander captured its own cloud-gazing adventures.

Scientists know that these clouds play an important role in shaping Mars’s climate, but before now there hasn’t been a lot of information about how they form and move over the course of a day. Recently, however, NASA has used a supercomputer to simulate the Martian weather, showing how clouds move and disperse over time.

A simulation of the weather on Mars. Credit: NASA

This simulation shows summer in Mars’s northern hemisphere, with clouds forming during the night around the equator and reaching their densest point just before dawn. During the day, the clouds slowly dissipate, before reforming once more as the sun sets. You can see the peaks of the Tharsis Montes volcano chain peeking through the clouds due to their high elevation.

The simulation was created by researchers at the Mars Climate Modeling Center, who use computer models to understand processes like air turbulence, radiation, and circulation in the atmosphere. To crunch through the huge amounts of data needed to create a simulation of an entire planet’s climate, they use the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility. This modular facility was designed to house supercomputers in a more energy-efficient way, saving on the amount of electricity and water used to cool the massive computers.

Understanding how the Martian climate operates today also helps us understand how it could have operated in the past. Scientists believe that Mars once hosted water on its surface, meaning that it could once have potentially supported life. Next year, the Mars 2020 mission will be launched to search for evidence of fossils in the Jezero Crater, which researchers have determined is the most likely location for life to have existed on the planet.

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