Science & Technology

This Animated Clip Shows Mini-Dust Storms All Over the Martian North Pole

When Mars has a dust storm, it's quite the epic weather event. There are fresh pictures from a European spacecraft that show several storms brewing at the north pole of the Red Planet. When humans eventually land on Mars, you can bet they'll want to plan for this.

Image caption: This series of images captured by the Visual Monitoring Camera onboard ESA's Mars Express covers about 70 minutes of motion as a dust storm moves along the north polar ice cap of Mars on 29 May 2019. The storm moved with an approximate speed of 20 m/s. The polar ice cap covers much of the left of the image while the storm is seen on the right. Mars Express was moving along its orbit but the images have been re-projected as if the observer was stationary, to make the motion of the storm clearer. The illumination angle of the Sun changes between image frames, highlighting the structures in the dust clouds. The black margins arise from the variable distance of Mars Express to the planet along its orbit: closer to the planet it cannot always image the same parts of the surface in consecutive images. Credit: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao

How Dust Storms Happen

When you think "dust storm," you might imagine a faceful of sand on a windy beach. This isn't like that. Dust storms on Mars have special power because of how thin the atmosphere is. Once you loft particles in the atmosphere, they tend to stay up there. At times, the dust storms become so strong that they can engulf the entire planet. Why that happens is still poorly understood, but it's definitely something scientists are curious about.

Right now, it's spring in the Red Planet's northern hemisphere. That's a favorable time for dust thanks to how much sunlight is falling on the Martian surface, and the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft recently returned pictures showing "dust-lifting events" at the edge of the north pole's ice cap, which retreats a bit under the warmer sun.

"Many of the spacecraft at Mars return daily weather reports from orbit or from the surface, providing global and local impressions of the changing atmospheric conditions," ESA said in a statement. "ESA's Mars Express observed at least eight different storms at the edge of the ice cap between 22 May and 10 June, which formed and dissipated very quickly, between one and three days."

So why care about dust? It's because dust gets into everything — just ask the Apollo astronauts. After only a few days working on the moon 50 years ago, these astronauts had lunar dust buried in their spacesuit fibers, and it even wore away at tools and rover fenders. While Mars dust isn't quite as abrasive, we still want to be able to manage it during future missions.

Fading Sunlight

Dust is also a concern for generating solar power. Dust storms killed communications from both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers after they spent many years on Mars, in part because they couldn't get the power they needed to stay alive and warm (through heaters). Future Mars visitors will have to think creatively in terms of power generation options.

NASA's studies over the years have allowed it to make some predictions about dust storms. While the agency still struggles to say when global storms occur, scientists know (with a fair degree of accuracy) that dust storms are strongest during the southern hemisphere summer, which makes sense because at that time there's more sunlight and Mars is at the closest point in its orbit to the sun. But in general, we should probably be sympathetic to NASA — it's hard enough to make weather forecasts on Earth!

Dust storms aren't the only thing on Mars that concern scientists — there are also dust devils. Even if the mini-cyclones are only a few feet across, if they get close enough to the equipment, they can throw a lot of dust over the solar generators. That's why astronauts had to do daily sweeps of their solar panels in the fictional 2015 movie "The Martian," NASA said.

In any case, we'll have plenty of time to figure out how to keep humans safely powered up on Mars. The first missions there aren't planned until at least the 2030s since NASA is occupied with figuring out how to get people on the moon by 2024. Who knows — maybe by then, some great new power tech will become available for Martian missions to make dust storms less of a threat. We can only hope!

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: Sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

No need to mess with dust storms when you have this replica Mars Rover Assembly kit! If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell July 12, 2019

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.