EPSC07/08: The highs and lows of Martian water vapour
August 22, 2007



Recent observations by instruments aboard Mars Express show peculiar behaviour by water vapour in the highest and lowest regions of Mars. Results from the study will be presented by Luca Maltagliati at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam on Wednesday 22nd August.

Measurements of water vapour in the atmosphere of Mars by the PFS (Planetary Fourier Spectrometer) and OMEGA (Observatoire pour la Minéralogie, l’Eau, les Glaces, at l’Activité) instruments, both onboard Mars Express, give us a clear view on the seasonal behaviour of water vapour in the atmosphere of Mars. The study shows irregularities in the behaviour of water vapour, different from the global trend on Mars, in the atmosphere surrounding the Big Volcanoes and the Hellas Basin, which are respectively the highest and lowest regions on Mars.

There have been regular measurements of the behaviour of water vapour during the Martian year since the 1970s, but the complementary characteristics of these two instruments allow a comprehensive analysis of the Martian water cycle with unprecedented detail.

“For most of the year, the atmosphere on the summit of the big volcanoes is enriched in water vapour – the ratio of water vapour is much higher compared to the surrounding areas. This can be explained by upslope currents activated by the extreme topography of the region that bring up a lot of material, water vapour included, from the bottom to the summit,” said Luca Maltagliati, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

In the Hellas Basin region, the observations also showed a peculiar seasonal behaviour. While the north seems to present the same quantity of water vapour through the Martian year, the interior of the basin seems to be depleted of it in some seasons, especially if compared to the south region.

The causes for this are still being investigated but it is believed that, in this case, local circulation of the atmosphere plays an important role. In fact, Hellas itself is known to have an important part in driving the circulation of the whole Southern hemisphere of Mars. The presence of surface ice was also observed during local winter.

These results mark the importance of local influence on the global water cycle.


Mars Express

Mars Express is the European Space Agency’s first mission to Mars. The spacecraft, which has been in orbit since December 2003, is investigating the history of water on Mars and mapping the planet in unprecedented detail.

For further information, see:

Big Volcanoes on Mars

Tharsis Montes is a range of three volcanoes in the Tharsis region of Mars.

It consists of Ascraeus Mons (whose summit is about 18 km above Mars’ mean surface level, and is 460 km in diameter), Pavonis Mons (14 km above Mars’ mean surface level) and Arsia Mons (almost 19 km high and 435 km in diameter). Another volcano, Olympus Mons (22 km high and 600km in diameter), is the tallest known mountain in the Solar System and is located northwest of the Tharsis volcanoes.

The Hellas Impact Basin

The Hellas Impact Basin, also known as the Hellas Planitia is a roughly circular impact crater located in the southern hemisphere of the planet Mars. It is the largest impact structure on the planet, with a diameter of about 2,300 km and a depth of 8 km in its lowest point) The basin is thought to have been formed during the Late Heavy Bombardment period of the Solar System, over 3.9 billion years ago, when a large asteroid impacted Mars.


Image 1: Map of Martian surface showing big volcanoes and Hellas Basin

Image 2: Changes in water vapour concentrations over the Hellas basin in winter, spring and autumn, as measured by the Omega instrument on Mars Express (C) ESA/Omega Team/Max Planck Institute

Image 3: Omega images showing enhanced water vapour concentrations over the big volcanoes (C) ESA/Omega team/Max Planck Institute