First spotted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on May 30, the dust storm already covers a quarter of Mars and keeps on growing. This event threatens the mission of NASA’s Opportunity rover, with which the connection was lost on June 12. How is the situation going to evolve? Are the Martian storms any similar to those on Earth? What about the potential danger they could pose to humans? Let’s take a look at all available information in order to find the answers.
It is already bigger than 2007’s storm
This is not the first time the dust storm on Mars puts the existence of Opportunity in danger. In 2007, a storm of a much smaller size lasted for two weeks. As it is continuously expanding, the current dust storm could last up to one month, stretching across the entire planet.
“The Martian” and the reality
The storms on Mars are presented in a very dramatic way in The Martian, a novel by Andy Weir, and its movie adaptation. However, in reality, these storms are not that intense. They can reach up to 97 km/h, which is still only about half the speed of Earth’s hurricane winds. But not only that. Since the atmospheric pressure on Mars is just a small fraction of our planet’s, even at their maximum speed, the winds on the Red Planet do not have the power of Earth’s winds.
The danger of radiation
On the other hand, the power of these winds is big enough to raise the dust and cover with it a large part of the planet. This could potentially complicate the work of future manned missions on Mars. The thick layer of dust can not only affect the functioning of solar panels, but also create something similar to a greenhouse effect. The radiation that normally would be lost to space cannot get through the dust and is being trapped on Mars.
We also need to mention that the particles of dust on Mars are slightly electrostatic, which makes them stick easily and accumulate. That would definitely make the life of any future space explorer much harder, as the dust would surely gather on the surfaces of equipment in enormous amounts.
Even though the storms on Mars are not potentially as violent as those on Earth, they can still pose a threat to any human being or machine exploring the Red Planet.
Brad is a former Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, is an award-winning travel, culture, and parenting writer. His writing has appeared in many of the Canada’s most respected and credible publications, including the Toronto Star, CBC News and on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. A meticulous researcher who’s not afraid to be controversial, he is nationally known as a journalist who opens people’s eyes to the realities behind accepted practices in the care of children. Brad is a contributing journalist to Advocator.ca