Dust in the Martian wind

One of the most fascinating videos sent back by the Curiosity rover, currently exploring the surface of Mars, shows a number of dust storms marching across the desert, against a backdrop of distant, low hills.

Dust storms are common on Earth, but it is exciting to see them on another world, with weather, geography and geology -— just like ours.
Mars' resemblance to our world was realized centuries ago. Until recently, we thought it had plant life, and fantasized about its inhabitants.

The other thing that fascinated us was that the planet has what we would call weather.

Although Mars is smaller than Earth and further from the sun, like Earth it has polar caps, seasons and clouds in its atmosphere.

Occasionally, sandstorms cover most of the planet. Landers on the surface show a desert with frost forming on the rocks during the night and evaporating in the morning sun.

There are two other differences between Earth and Mars. Earth has a thick, humid atmosphere and Mars has a thin, dry one. Earth's thick, damp atmosphere traps heat and smoothes out daily and seasonal temperature variations.

Mars' atmospheric pressure at the surface level is about half a percentage point that of the Earth's, and the Martian atmosphere is much drier. It has very little capacity to trap heat.

When the sun rises, the dry, Martian deserts warm rapidly, heating the atmosphere in contact with it, setting up vigorous convection. Cold "air" over high ground flows downhill as strong winds.  

As the air descends, it gets compressed and warms, like Chinooks. It rises and makes room for more cold air to flow down.

The result is wind systems that can be small or huge. Winds in the thin Martian atmosphere are not able to blow heavy objects round, as hurricanes and tornadoes do on our world. However, they are very good at picking up the find sand and dust that covers most of the Martian surface.

The result is dust and sandstorms that might be small and local, or big enough to cover most of the planet. They can be thick enough to completely hide the sun from anyone on the surface for days, weeks or months. This presents us with a major problem.

Although Curiosity, our main robot Mars explorer, is nuclear powered, others, like Spirit and Opportunity, are powered by solar energy. These two landed on Mars in 2004. Spirit has ceased to function, but Opportunity is still exploring, after 14 years, far longer than planned.

Opportunity survived a severe dust storm in 2007, which forced it to go into hibernation until the returning sun got its electrical supply started again. However, there is now a dust storm on Mars that is far larger than the 2007 event, which got started right over the rover, so Opportunity is likely to be in the dark for far longer.

It can go into deep hibernation, but there is a limit as to how cold its electronics can be allowed to get, and for how long.
Another problem with the dust is that it is fine and very dry. As it blows around, it gets electrically charged and clings to everything. It can cover solar cells and get into mechanical and electrical places where it's not wanted.

With luck, some dust-free wind following the dust storm will blow the stuff off again, as it did in 2007.

Large Martian dust storms are visible, often with quite small telescopes, from Earth. Moreover, now is a good time to get out the telescope.

We have just overtaken Mars in its orbit and we are still close to the planet.

Look for a bright, reddish-orange object in the Southeast around midnight, shining like a lamp.

Mars never appears really large in small telescopes. However, be patient, and there will be moments the air stills, the shimmering vanishes and the details suddenly leap out.

While you have the telescope out, there are some other planets to see.

  • Venus lies low in the west after sunset
  • Jupiter in the Southwest and Saturn in the Southeast after dark.
  • The Moon will reach First Quarter on the 19th.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


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About the Author

Ken Tapping is an astronomer born in the U.K. He has been with the National Research Council since 1975 and moved to the Okanagan in 1990.  

He plays guitar with a couple of local jazz bands and has written weekly astronomy articles since 1992. 

Tapping has a doctorate from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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