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Only the Penitentes Shall Pass: Snow and Stars Near ESO’s ALMA

Icy penitentes march along the cold, dry ground on the Chajnantor Plateau near ALMA (ESO/Babak Tafreshi)

Icy penitentes march along the cold, dry ground on the Chajnantor Plateau near ALMA. Click for full version. (ESO/Babak Tafreshi)

I just had to share this beautiful image by ESO photo ambassador Babak Tafreshi; it shows a star-filled night sky above the Chajnantor Plateau on the border of Chile and Bolivia, the site of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory. The site, chosen for its remote location and incredibly clear, dry sky, is one of the best on Earth for observing the most distant objects in the Universe.

The jagged snow features in the foreground are known as penitentes, for their resemblance to the conical hats of Spanish religious group members known as the Nazarenos. They are the result of Sun and wind erosion on high-altitude snow, although the exact process isn’t entirely known.

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Surprise: it can snow on Venus! (But it’s made of metal.)

Radar observations of Ovda Regio highlands show bright, reflective "frost" on rising slopes but dark "bare" patches at the highest elevations. (NASA image)

Radar observations of Ovda Regio highlands show bright, reflective “frost” on rising slopes but dark “bare” patches at the highest elevations. (NASA Magellan data)

Our neighboring planet Venus is pretty badass. Sulfuric acid-laden clouds, crushing atmospheric pressure, and broiling surface temperatures soaring to nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit (480 degrees Celsius) make Earth’s “sister” world quite the alien horror show. And now there may be another strange phenomenon to add to Venus’ list of extreme oddities: heavy metal ferroelectric “snow” covering its highest mountain peaks — but, curiously, only up to a certain height.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Venus Has a Surprisingly Chilly Layer

The Blank Face of Venus (NASA/Gordan Ugarkovic)

Although similar in size to Earth, the planet-next-door Venus is typically perceived as a hellish inferno of caustic clouds, crushing pressures and kiln-like temperatures. And while those are indeed all very much the case, Venus has recently been found to have a cooler side too… although it’s 125 km (77 miles) up in its atmosphere.

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Phoenix’s Sense of Snow

Martian Polar Plains

Martian Polar Plains

The results are in: Mars has (or had) a favorable environment for life.

Microbial life, sure, but life nonetheless.

This is according to the results posted in this week’s edition of the journal Science, from the Phoenix Mars polar lander. The data indicates that the region around the lander has subsurface layers of perchlorate, a water-friendly compound that could allow microbial life to exist just beneath the surface of the Martial soil.

“Not only did we find water ice, as expected, but the soil chemistry and minerals we observed lead us to believe this site had a wetter and warmer climate in the recent past — the last few million years — and could again in the future,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Read the entire press release here.

The Phoenix lander, launched on August 4, 2007, landed in the north polar region of Mars with the objective of finding out if the planet has or once had favorable conditions for life. It has been silent since December of last year, when the harsh Martian winter set in and depleted its energy levels.

The results also indicate instances of snow in the Martian atmosphere. Apparently Mars has some very Earth-like precipitation at higher latitudes.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

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