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Meteors crashing into Mars give rise to mysterious, smoky clouds

Where there's meteoric smoke, there's cloud cover.

NASA's Curiosity rover sees clouds on Mars. 
NASA/JPL-Caltech/York University

NASA's Mars InSight lander and Curiosity rover have been doing a lot of skygazing and sending back lovely views of wispy clouds. It doesn't rain on Mars, but we might be closer to figuring out how the cold, barren planet can have such scenic cloudy days.

A research team led by Victoria Hartwick, a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, took a closer look at the mysterious clouds that form in Mars' middle atmosphere, about 18 miles (30 kilometers) above the ground. 

"Clouds don't just form on their own," Hartwick said. "They need something that they can condense on to." The secret might be "meteoric smoke," icy dust that forms when space rocks fly into the planet's atmosphere. 

Several tons of space debris typically crashes into Mars every day, Hartwick noted. As meteors blast apart, the dust goes flying. On Earth, dust particles can act as seeds that water vapor condenses around to form clouds. A similar action could be happening on Mars.

The researchers ran computer simulations of the planet's atmosphere. The clouds appeared in the simulations only when the team included meteors in the calculations. The team published its findings on Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Peering into Mars clouds can tell scientists more about how its atmosphere interacts with its climate while also giving us clues to its warmer, wetter past. It's nice to have some scientific context to go along with the soothing cloud views