The weather on Earth can be extreme and downright awe-inspiring at times, but Mars probably has us beat. The annual storm season on Mars doesn’t include torrential rains, but the dust storms can completely encircle the planet. Mars’ current storm season resulted in one of these monster storms, but they all start off as small waves of dust in the thin Martian atmosphere. The European Space Agency (ESA) just released an image from earlier this year depicting the beginning stages of a Martian dust storm.
Mars has a thin atmosphere composed mainly of carbon dioxide. The planet has seasons, not unlike Earth, which expose the ice caps to more solar energy. As a result, the atmosphere becomes thicker and more able to sweep up Martian fines. That’s what’s happening in the image above, which is the beginning of a large dust storm near the planet’s northern polar region.
The image comes from the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which has been watching Mars for almost 15 years. The probe has been so successful it’s easy to almost forget the loss of the Beagle 2 lander from the same mission. Scientists used the spacecraft’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) to capture this image of the wavefront in the Utopia Planitia region in April of 2018.
This storm picked up early in the storm season for Mars, and in any other year, it would be considered rather large. Several weeks later, the current superstorm began to the southwest in the Arabia Terra region. That storm currently covers the entire planet, which could spell doom for the plucky little Opportunity rover. NASA says Opportunity slipped into failsafe mode a few weeks back as light levels dropped off and the robot was no longer able to recharge its batteries.
Curiosity photo of the same drill hole before the storm and after the storm hit, showing how much light is blocked by dust storms on Mars.
Images like the one captured by Mars Express could help scientists understand Martian weather. The feedback loop that creates these giant dust storms every few years is still poorly understood. Some, like the Utopia Planitia storm, dissipate after reaching the size of a small US state. Others, like the Arabia Terra storm, expand until they cover the entire surface. If humanity intends to set up a permanent presence on Mars one day, knowing how to predict and mitigate Martian dust storms will be vital.
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