The fact and fiction of Martian dust storms

September 21, 2015 by Kathryn Mersmann

For years, science fiction writers from Edgar Rice Burroughs to C. S. Lewis have imagined what it would be like for humans to walk on Mars. As mankind comes closer to taking its first steps on the Red Planet, authors' depictions of the experience have become more realistic.

Andy Weir's "The Martian" begins with a massive dust storm that strands fictional astronaut Mark Watney on Mars. In the scene, powerful wind rips an antenna out of a piece of equipment and destroys parts of the astronauts' camp.

Mars is infamous for intense , which sometimes kick up enough dust to be seen by telescopes on Earth.

"Every year there are some moderately big dust storms that pop up on Mars and they cover continent-sized areas and last for weeks at a time," said Michael Smith, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Beyond Mars' large annual storms are massive storms that occur more rarely but are much larger and more intense.

"Once every three Mars years (about 5 ½ Earth years), on average, normal storms grow into planet-encircling dust storms, and we usually call those 'global dust storms' to distinguish them," Smith said.

It is unlikely that even these dust storms could strand an astronaut on Mars, however. Even the wind in the largest dust storms likely could not tip or rip apart major mechanical equipment. The winds in the strongest Martian storms top out at about 60 miles per hour, less than half the speed of some hurricane-force winds on Earth.

Focusing on wind speed may be a little misleading, as well. The atmosphere on Mars is about 1 percent as dense as Earth's atmosphere. That means to fly a kite on Mars, the wind would need to blow much faster than on Earth to get the kite in the air.

"The key difference between Earth and Mars is that Mars' atmospheric pressure is a lot less," said William Farrell, a plasma physicist who studies atmospheric breakdown in Mars dust storms at Goddard. "So things get blown, but it's not with the same intensity."

Challenges of solar power

Mars' dust storms aren't totally innocuous, however. Individual dust particles on Mars are very small and slightly electrostatic, so they stick to the surfaces they contact like Styrofoam packing peanuts.

A dust storm on Mars in 2008 temporarily cuts the amount of sunlight reaching the solar array on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, leaving the rover in a vulnerable state. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

"If you've seen pictures of Curiosity after driving, it's just filthy," Smith said. "The dust coats everything and it's gritty; it gets into mechanical things that move, like gears."

The possibility of dust settling on and in machinery is a challenge for engineers designing equipment for Mars.

This dust is an especially big problem for solar panels. Even dust devils of only a few feet across—which are much smaller than traditional storms—can move enough dust to cover the equipment and decrease the amount of sunlight hitting the panels. Less sunlight means less energy created.

In "The Martian," Watney spends part of every day sweeping dust off his solar panels to ensure maximum efficiency, which could represent a real challenge faced by future astronauts on Mars.

Global storms can also present a secondary issue, throwing enough dust into the atmosphere to reduce sunlight reaching the surface of Mars.

When faced with a larger dust storm in the book, Watney's first hint is the decreased efficiency of his solar panels, caused by a slight darkening of the atmosphere. That's a pretty accurate depiction of what large dust storms can do, Smith said.

When global storms hit, surface equipment often has to wait until the dust settles, either to conserve battery or to protect more delicate hardware.

"We really worry about power with the rovers; it's a big deal," Smith said. "The Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed in 2004, so they've only had one global dust storm to go through (in 2007) and they basically shut down operations and went into survival mode for a few weeks."

Stirring up dust

This artists concept illustrates a Martian dust storm, which might also crackle with electricity. Credit: NASA

Large global dust storms put enough dust in the air to completely cover the planet and block out the sun, but doing so ultimately dooms the storm itself. The radiative heat of sunlight reaching the surface of the planet is what drives these dust storms.

As sunlight hits the ground, it warms the air closest to the surface, leaving the upper air cooler. As in thunderstorms on Earth, the warm and cool air together become unstable, with warm air rising up and taking dust with it.

Rising plumes of warm air create everything from small dust devils, similar to those that form in deserts on Earth, to larger continent-sized storms. These larger storms sometimes combine into the global storms, which cover the entire planet in atmospheric dust.

Larger storms typically only happen during summer in Mars' southern hemisphere. Seasons on Mars are caused by the tilt of the planet, like on Earth. But Mars' orbit is less circular than Earth's; for part of a Martian year, the planet is closer to the sun and therefore significantly hotter. This warmer time is during the southern hemisphere's summer, so radiative heat forces are strongest then. Once started, bigger storms can last weeks to months.

A towering dust devil casts a serpentine shadow over the Martian surface in this image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.The scene is a late-spring afternoon in the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars. The view covers an area about four-tenths of a mile (644 meters) across. North is toward the top. The length of the dusty whirlwind's shadow indicates that the dust plume reaches more than half a mile (800 meters) in height. The plume is about 30 yards or meters in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Scientists aren't really sure why the years' long gaps between storms exist.

"It could be that it just takes a while for the sources to replenish themselves," Smith said. "Maybe there's some kind of cycle that the dust has to go through to get back into the right places to trigger a new one, or maybe it's just kind of luck."

Scientists have been tracking these global dust storms on Mars for more than a century, using both telescopes on Earth and spacecraft orbiting Mars. The storms have been observed a number of times since 1909, most recently in 2007. Now, more than eight years later, Smith is hopeful he'll get the chance to study a major storm soon.

"We're overdue for a global dust storm and it could be saving up a really big one this year, so that would kind of fun," he said. "I like the dust storms."

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4 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2015
The power of Martian dust storms could be used to generate useful energy in future. Dust turbine, for example, could be made from a durable material and used in addition to solar panels when dust storm comes. Dust particles have higher momentum than air molecules at the same speed. Thus dust turbines may be even more powerful than air ones.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2015
The power of Martian dust storms could be used to generate useful energy in future.

That'd be like trying to harness lightining strikes. Sure they have a bit of energy - but they are so infrequent that the average power you get is extremely low.
4 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2015
Duration of Martian dusty storms can achieve 50-100 days. They have regional and seasonable character like Earth winds. With increasing of human presence at Mars the energy of dust could become useful.
5 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2015
Solar is a better bet, and far easier to install and maintain
( would be nuclear, as you have to live in an enclosed environment in any case - so any kind of nuclear accident doesn't really matter and you can skimp on shielding...although getting water to run turbines/cooling is going to be tricky. Nuclear-thermal would work but is very inefficient).

Note the 1% density of the martian atmosphere. In the end the kinetic energy that you harnes of the dust has to come from somewhere (imparted by air molecules). Even though dust rises easier on Mars (less gravity) larger particles that would impart significant kinetic energy have a harder time staying afloat in a thinner atmosphere.
4 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2015
Solar energy is better when sun is in the sky. Dusty clouds and polar nights (weak radiation at high latitudes) are the serious problems. Use of nuclear energy is too difficult and expensive in the near future. Nuclear dust is harmful not only on our planet (but future nuclear technology should be safe).
It is needed more detail investigation of dusty flows to find out their density, fraction spreading with altitude, especially in the north polar region.
1 / 5 (4) Sep 23, 2015
That'd be like trying to harness lightining strikes
Actually if you took a little time to research instead of pretending you knew what you were talking about, youd see that NASA is considering this.

"When you have a large dust storm blocking the sunlight on Mars, a wind turbine can still generate electricity," said scientist David Bubenheim of NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley.

"Only during dust storms on Mars is there enough wind energy to operate a wind turbine," said Michael Flynn, another NASA Ames scientist. On Earth about 10 meters (33 feet) per second wind speed is needed to make electricity with wind turbines; on Mars about 30 meters (98 feet) is needed because of the extremely thin air, according to Bubenheim.

"We've looked at wind profiles based on atmospheric computer models of Mars," Bubenheim said. A scheme of complementary wind and solar power appears to be an option..."

-Youre too easy sometimes, you know?
Enthusiastic Fool
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 24, 2015

This seems to be your source.

It's a press release from 2001. Globally, there have been 6 lander/rover missions to Mars since that 14 year old press release. How many of them elected to use wind? Zero. You say they are "considering" but I'd say it's more like they "considered". When you think about it 30-50 days of supplemental power every three years doesn't sound worth it. This is especially true when you consider that this power source has moving parts that must survive dust, temperature swings and long idle periods without maintenance. Compared to a RTG or Solar it seems like NASA was just doing due diligence.

I don't know everything but I do know that you hound AA like a preteen scorned at the dance. AA seems rational and reliable while you seem desperate. Don't be that guy. Whatever it is you should let it go and move on.

2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2015
It's a press release from 2001. Globally, there have been 6 lander/rover missions to Mars since that 14 year old press release. How many of them elected to use wind? Zero
As you may know (or ought to), missions require decades of planning. The missions thus far havent required any more energy than what was included.

AAs argument was that wind power was impractical. NASAs studies of wind profiles says that it is.
you hound AA like a preteen scorned at the dance
1) Who cares what you think?

2) I dont like it when people pretend to know what they obviously dont. AA was adlibbing and obviously didnt bother to check what had already been done by experts.

He does this frequently. Exposing the pompous is always a source of entertainment.
AA seems rational and reliable while you seem desperate
If you actually check what he posts you will often find out otherwise.

Its very touching that you wish to defend a hero of yours. AA is able to defend himself yes?
3 / 5 (2) Sep 24, 2015
-And if you had done a little more research you would have found out that NASA has been collecting data for a few decades now. And no they have not stopped considering wind power for extended human missions on the surface.

"NASA Spinoff 2013

"In the early 1990s, NASA was planning for an extended stay on Mars, and Bubenheim and his Ames colleagues were concentrating efforts on creating a complete ecological system to sustain human crewmembers during their time on the Red Planet.

"The Ames group started looking at maximizing energy use efficiency and alternative methods to make power on a planet that is millions of miles away from Earth. They turned to a hybrid concept..."

While the turbine has not yet made its way to Mars, Bubenheim says the partnership between NPS and other government entities has produced data and knowledge that NASA is building on for future Mars missions. Plus, thanks to more recent NASA missions to generate new information about the surface of Mars,"
1 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2015
With the passing of Yogi, I had to bring up one of my favorite yogi-isms:

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

Reading (or cutting and pasting), about it and doing it are not the same.
1 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2015
If there is any message I would like to send to the World Nuclear Society, it would be Yogi's:

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

It should be prominently placed in all nuclear systems.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 24, 2015
With the passing of Yogi, I had to bring up one of my favorite yogi-isms:

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

Reading (or cutting and pasting), about it and doing it are not the same.
I would have thought it was this one: "I didn't really say everything I said"

"But there is something else about the speech of psychopaths that is equally puzzling: their frequent use of contradictory and logically inconsistent statements that usually escape detection."

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