Watching shooting stars on Mars

British astronomers have, for the first time, detected a shower of shooting stars on another planet. They checked records from a space probe orbiting Mars to catch meteors streaking through its thin atmosphere.

Mars Global SurveyorThe scientists, from Armagh Observatory, first calculated the dates when Mars’ path around the sun would cross the trails of debris left by comets. Six possible showers were identified.

The team found Mars’ orbit intersected with that of Comet du Toit-Hartley in April 2003 and March 2005.

The Armagh team then checked those dates with records from the Mars Global Surveyor satellite and found it had recorded flashes in the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere.

Dr Apostolos Christou will describe the fascinating results at the National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast today.

He said earlier: “Just as we can predict meteor outbursts at Earth, such as the Leonids, we can also predict when meteor showers are going to occur at Mars and Venus.

“We believe that shooting stars should appear at Venus and Mars with a similar brightness to those we see at Earth. However, as we are not in a position to watch them in the Martian sky directly, we have to sift through satellite data to look for evidence of particles burning up in the upper atmosphere.”

Observations of meteor showers help astronomers learn more about the history of comets which come from the depths of othe solar system. About four times more comets fly close to Mars than the Earth, a high number of them in orbits tied to the planet Jupiter, and so scientists believe Mars offers a major opportunity to understand them.

Flashes have been spotted before as meteors struck the Moon where there is no atmosphere to burn them up. It is a project that amateur astronomers can take part in.

Picture: How Mars Global Surveyor looks orbiting the Red Planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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