Marfa Lights on Mars?

Marfa Lights are an enigmatic, controversial phenomenon. Some dismiss them as nothing more than atmospheric distortions of car headlights from the distant highway. Others offer more complex answers, from extraterrestrials to will-o’-the-wisp. No one has a definitive solution to this mystery. The earliest accounts of Marfa Lights are in the 1880s, before horseless carriages were a thing.

Coincidentally, the earliest account of bright light flares on Mars was in 1896. This does seem spooky. Do you wonder if we are being observed?

Well, I don’t know what the Marfa Lights are, but I’m pretty sure it’s not extraterrestrials watching us. If they have the technology to get here, I bet they can make themselves invisible too. But…maybe…

The first account of a bright flare on Mars’ surface came from British amateur astronomer John Milton Offord, in 1896. He described a “brilliant scintillating star-like point” appearing suddenly in Hellas Planitia, the extensive plain caused by a meteor impact. The astronomy community thought he was seeing things.

Then, on June 4, 1937, Japanese amateur astronomer Sizuo Mayeda reported seeing a bright scintillation near 55ᵒ north latitude. He estimated it lasted about 5 minutes.

Similar flashes of bright light were reported in 1951, 1954, and 1958, by amateur astronomers, and they appear to occur infrequently. Many appear near Mars’ equator, though spread out around the planet. Now the astronomy community was taking notice, but what causes these bright, flashing, flickering lights? Certainly not headlights on the highway!

One proposed possibility was volcanic activity, but University of Michigan astronomer Dean McLaughlin explained the unlikelihood. The volcanic activity would have to be immense, with much more fire than those produced on Earth. Or the volcanoes would have to be associated with huge releases of bright-glowing gas, possibly a few kilometers wide. Because of Mars’ super thin atmosphere (96% CO2), any fires from volcanoes would be minimal and flammable gas would not ignite. So much for volcanism. McLaughlin did suggest another possibility – reflections.

OK, we know that CO2 frost forms in craters and cervices and water ice exists in these areas too, as well as in the atmosphere. Sunlight at just the right angle could reflect from bright CO2 or water ice layers. Water ice in Earth’s upper atmosphere can form broad, thin sheets that can be highly reflective. Water ice in the form of thin clouds has been measured as part of Mars’ seasonal cycles so this is a possibility.

Another suggested mechanism is CO2 frost on sand dunes and this scenario fits the flickering nature of these flares.

Finally, the possibility of reflections from known broad deposits of aligned minerals such as felspar has been hypothesized.

Flares on Mars were observed and recorded by a Sky & Telescope team in 2001, close to its opposition and predicted to occur the first week of December this year – stay tuned.

What’s in the Sky?

October 21st late night into the 22nd early morning; east: The Orionid Meteor Shower peaks