Dust storms on Mars have always been one of the most baffling mysteries about the Red Planet. Even after 50 years of rigorous research, scientists still have not fully figured out how Martian dust storms are formed, what causes them to last for months, and why they’re so unpredictable. The United States, China and the United Arab Emirates will launch several Mars missions this summer that can hopefully help us answer these questions.
NASA’s Perseverance will be collecting dust in Mars regions that are still unexplored. It will also directly measure wind speed and direction to help scientists understand how dust is lifted into the air and improve forecasts. Perseverance’s landing is set for February 2021, when the chance of a dust storm occurring within 1000 km of its landing area is below 2%. Its navigation system has been made to be as dust resistant as possible as a precaution.
China will be launching its first Mars mission, Tianwen 1, this July. Their rover is focused on making accurate measurements of air temperature, wind and pressure. Meanwhile, the UAE’s Emirates Mars Mission, known as Hope, will be observing planetary weather and dust storms, including how the Martian atmosphere interacts with the ground and changes each season.
Currently, all we know is dust storm season happens when Mars is orbiting closer to the Sun and can last for 10 Earth months. During this season, local dust storms can cover an area the size of Alaska on the surface of the planet, while global dust storms can engulf the planet for months. But, why is it so crucial that we know more about these dust storms?
Ever since the first long-term robot visitor went to Mars in 1971, dust storms have ended many landing missions. This is detrimental to Mars missions and ultimately, slows exploration. Most recently in 2018, a dust storm ‘killed off’ the Opportunity rover after 14 years traversing Mars collecting data. Not only do these storms make Mars landings difficult, they can be dangerous for future human expeditions. As NASA and other space programs strive to send humans to Mars, being able to prepare for dust storms is becoming more important than ever. Bruce Cantor, an atmospheric scientist from Malin Space Science Systems says: “Someday, somebody is going to go to Mars, and they’re going to want to know when and where storms occur.”
It’s not fully known how the fine dust on Mars can affect humans, though it’s unlikely that they will be exposed to it, thanks to space suits and filters inside the habitat. Still, one can never be too prepared when exploring the unknown.