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NASA develops model to predict global dust storms on Mars

The weather on other planets is usually not particularly relevant to human activities or research. But Mars is the exception. Not only do we have robots trundling around the surface, there are early plans to send humans to the Red Planet to study it in more detail, and maybe even set up a colony. That’s why understanding the massive dust storms that can sometimes engulf the entire planet is so important. A new model of Mars’ dust storms has been published, and we’ll know in a few months if it can predict the next global storm.

Every year there are multiple dust storms that could rightly be called “massive” in most circumstances — roaring winds that cast angry clouds of dust across millions of square miles of the surface. These storms can last months with wind speeds as high as 60 miles per hour. It’s basically like a weak hurricane that goes on and on. The wind speeds are potentially dangerous for people and equipment, but the fine Martian dust that’s picked up in the storm is the larger issue. It get everywhere and blocks out the sun. A solar powered rover may also find itself without power even after the storm, as its solar panels are then covered with dust.

So, knowing when the typical continent-sized storms will turn into a global storm that lasts form months is important. Planet-wide storms have been recorded in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001, and 2007. See above for the global storm in 2001, which obscured most of the planet’s surface. We’re about due for another global storm, and researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory think this cycle could see a global storm.

The dust storm season on Mars usually reaches its peak during spring and summer in the planet’s southern hemisphere. That’s when Mars is closer to the sun, so it’s a little different than seasons here on Earth. The midpoint of the Martian storm season comes on October 29th. If the new model is accurate, a global storm should develop within a few weeks or months of that date.

JPL researchers basically noticed a pattern in the cycle of storms on Mars. The planet’s momentum changes as it orbits the sun on a 2.2-Earth-year cycle, which is a little longer than the planet’s own orbital year (1.9 Earth years). The big global storms tend to appear when Mars’ momentum increases during the first part of the storm season. Because the momentum cycle — a consequence of Mars gravitationally interacting with other planets — is longer than a year, these events only match up occasionally. And they match up this year.

Thus far, there have only been the usual regional storms on Mars, but scientists are watching closely to see if the hypothesis holds. If it does, NASA and other space agencies could use this pattern to make sure important missions avoid the most risky times on the surface. Future manned missions could also be properly outfitted when large storms are expected.

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