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Mars storms a risk to rovers

By David, 21 June 2018 News

This dusty selfie of Curiosity was made by combining about 100 separate photos!
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

If you think the weather here on Earth is bad, be glad you don’t live on Mars. Storms currently cover much of the planet, with wind speeds of around 100 kilometres per hour. So spare a thought for the intrepid Mars rovers currently bearing the brunt of the storm.

Although the wind is fast, it isn’t very strong. Mars has a very thin atmosphere, and the air pressure at the planet’s surface is less than 1% of Earth’s. For the robots exploring Mars’ surface, it means there’s no risk that they’ll be blown over. But that doesn’t mean the storm is harmless.

The biggest problem is that the storm brings dust. With no plants to hold the soil together and no rain to pull dust down to the ground, Martian dust can stay in the air for weeks. In really big storms, like this one, dust can blot out the Sun almost entirely, making the day seem like night.

This is bad news for the Opportunity rover, which runs on solar power. On 12 June, NASA lost contact with Opportunity. Scientists believe it has entered a battery saving mode, and they hope to re-establish contact after the storm has passed.

Two images of Mars, side by side, one of them pale and cloudy.

Back in 2001, a similar dust storm (right) covered most of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The Curiosity rover doesn’t have the same problem. It has a radioactive heart that provides heat and electricity. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe from the storm. Martian dust can be very small, and it gets into all kinds of nooks and crannies. This could clog up important equipment or damage joints and bearings. And since it’s so dry, the dust is often charged with static electricity, making it sticky as well.

Despite the danger to their missions, scientists are excited for the chance to learn more about Mars’ dust storms. If humans are to live on Mars, we need to be able to survive in good weather and bad. Let’s hope that these rovers survive too, so they can keep doing science on Mars!

There’s a new mission on its way to Mars right now! Read about it in the next issue of Double Helix magazine. Subscribe by 14 July to get this as your first issue!

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