Scientists think they know what causes dust storms on Mars

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(ORDO NEWS) — Mars is known for its seasonal dust storms, which can sometimes grow and cover the entire planet.

In June 2018, dust storms became so intense that they obscured much of the planet’s surface, causing NASA to lose contact with Opportunity, ultimately proving fatal to the record-breaking rover.

Understanding these storms and their causes is critical to ensuring the continued operation of solar-powered robotic missions and the safety of future crewed missions.

In particular, scientists are looking for seasonal changes (i.e. changes in absorbed solar energy and rising temperatures) that cause dust storms to coalesce and grow.

According to a recent study by scientists from the University of Houston, they may be the result of a seasonal energy imbalance in the amount of solar energy absorbed and released by the planet.

These findings could lead to new insights into the climate and atmosphere of the red planet.

The study was led by Ellen Creesy, PhD student in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) at the University of Houston, as part of her Ph.D.

She was joined by Dr. Xun Jiang and Dr. Liming Li (her thesis supervisors at EAS), as well as researchers from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) at the Lunar Planetary Institute ( LPI).

The term “radiant energy budget” refers to the amount of solar energy that the planet absorbs from the sun and radiates outward as heat. It is a fundamental metric for characterizing the planet’s climate and meteorological cycles.

For their study, the team combined observational data from multiple missions such as the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), the Curiosity rover, and the InSight lander.

This allowed them to model the climate of Mars and estimate the amount of energy it radiates on a global scale depending on the time of year, including periods with a global dust storm.

“One of the most interesting findings is that an excess of energy – more energy absorbed than produced – may be one of the mechanisms behind dust storms on Mars,” Creasy said.

When the Hubble Space Telescope took a picture of Mars in June 2001 (left), the seeds of the storm originated in the giant Hellas Basin (oval at 4 o’clock on the disk) and in another storm at the north polar cap.

The results showed strong seasonal and diurnal variations in the amount of solar energy emitted by Mars.

In particular, they found evidence of a strong energy imbalance of ~15.3 percent between Mars’ seasons – compared to 0.4 percent on Earth. They also found that during the 2001 dust storm that circled the planet, the amount of energy radiated globally decreased by 22 percent during the day, but increased by 29 percent at night.

As Dr. German Martinez, Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) staff scientist and co-author of the paper, explained in a recent USRA press release:

“Our results showing a strong energy imbalance suggest that current numerical models need to be revised as they generally assume that Mars’ radiant energy is balanced between Mars’ seasons. In addition, our results highlight the relationship between dust storms and energy imbalance and thus , may provide new insights into the generation of dust storms on Mars.”

Scientists think they know what causes dust storms on Mars 3
Left – Mars as seen by Hubble in June 2001. On the right is Mars in September of the same year. The Martian surface is darkened by a dust storm that has been raging on the planet for two months now

Combined with numerical models of the Martian climate, the team’s results could improve our understanding of the Martian climate and atmospheric circulations. This will be especially important for future crewed missions to Mars that NASA and China hope to accomplish in the coming decade.

In addition, these results may improve our understanding of the Earth’s climate by predicting how our environment may behave in the future. As always, the study of other planetary environments will inevitably lead to a better understanding of our planet.


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