Planet Gobbling Dust Storms
Their feelings must have been mixed indeed when the first images arrived at mission control and revealed .... a world-wide haze. The surface of the entire planet was hidden by the biggest dust storm anyone had ever seen! Only Olympus Mons, a giant volcano 24 kilometers high, peeked above the clouds.
After a month the dust settled and Mariner 9 mapped the Red Planet with great success. Scientists have since learned that huge dust storms, dwarfing desert dust clouds on Earth, are fairly common on Mars. The Mariner 9 event still holds the record as the thickest and longest-lasting we have observed -- but perhaps not for long.
Above: On June 26, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm brewing in Hellas Basin on Mars. A day later the storm "exploded" and became a global event.
Enjoying the best view of the storm is NASA's Mars Global Surveyor in orbit around the Red Planet. The spacecraft carries an instrument called "TES" -- short for Thermal Emission Spectrometer -- that can measure the temperature and dust content of the Martian atmosphere on a daily basis.
"This storm began as a small dust cloud inside the Hellas Basin, a 9-km deep impact crater in Mars's southern hemisphere," says Phil Christensen, the principal investigator for TES at Arizona State University. At first the cloud did little -- alternately growing and retreating as days passed, but never getting very large until June 27th. "That's when the storm exploded," says Christensen. "It crossed some critical threshold and really began to grow." By early July the dust cloud had spilled out of the Basin and wrapped itself around the entire planet.
Above: These movie frames show the dust content of Martian air between June 24 and July 8, 2001. A modest dust storm brewing in Hellas Basin (the large impact ring near the lower left of each hemisphere) suddenly exploded on June 27th and quickly enveloped the whole planet. GIF animations: Large (1 MB -- includes an extended caption),
"This is a big deal," says Christensen. Although Mars is smaller than Earth, its surface area equals the sum of all the continents on our planet. Imagine a dust storm on Earth that blanketed every continent at once. Its enough to make an allergy sufferer shiver (and sneeze).
No one knows exactly how Martian dust storms grow to such proportions. Says Christensen: "One theory holds that airborne dust particles absorb sunlight and warm the Martian atmosphere in their vicinity. Warm pockets of air rush toward colder regions and generate winds. Strong winds lift more dust off the ground, which further heats the atmosphere." It's a positive feedback loop that can transform tiny dust clouds into globe-swallowing storms.
Dust storms on Earth are smaller than their Martian cousins for two reasons:
Second, dust clouds don't raise the temperature of air on Earth as they do on Mars. "The temperature of Earth's atmosphere is controlled by the latent heat of water vapor," explains Christensen. "Airborne dust can't compete." On Mars, however, sunlight-absorbing dust can substantially heat the dry, thin atmosphere -- raising winds and, of course, more dust. "The global air temperature on Mars is now about 30 degrees C higher than it was before this dust storm began," notes Christensen.
Above: Thermal infrared measurements by TES orbiting Mars aboard Mars Global Surveyor reveal how the Martian atmosphere has substantially warmed during the ongoing dust storm. GIF animations: Large (1 MB, includes an extended caption),
The ultimate energy source for Martian dust storms is sunlight. For that reason the dusty season on Mars begins each year near perihelion, the planet's closest approach to the Sun. Mars will be at perihelion on October 12, 2001. "The biggest dust storms don't usually begin until one or two months after perihelion," notes Christensen. "This one coming so early in the season makes me think Mars is heading for a spell of big dust storms."
Above: Tan Wei Leong of Singapore captured this image of dust-shrouded Mars using an amateur 11" reflecting telescope on July 12, 2001. Credit: Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers.
A human explorer on Mars during such a storm would surely think the planet gloomy -- perhaps even a bit depressing. But the gloom might be less vexing than the dust itself. Fast-blowing (60 to 100 mph) dust particles can gum the joints of spacesuits and infiltrate cracks in doors and windows -- a real nuisance for future colonists.
And the nuisance wouldn't be short-lived, because once underway Martian dust storms don't quickly end. "Big events tend to last for weeks or months," says Christensen. "In fact, we're not certain what makes them stop." Perhaps, he speculates, when the whole planet is shrouded, strong thermal gradients in the atmosphere subside -- winds die down and the dust settles.
Like its predecessors, the ongoing dust storm is unpredictable -- no one knows when it will end. Indeed, it could be just the first of a series. "Energy in the atmosphere from one storm makes it easier for the next dust storm to begin," Christensen explains. No matter what happens, though, researchers are delighted. "Atmospheric scientists have been waiting for a beautiful storm like this," says Christensen. "The data we're collecting are marvelous, and I suspect there will be a rush of papers in the months ahead answering some of the questions we have about these events."
What an irony! An impenetrable haze around Mars will help scientists finally clear the air -- and understand the biggest dust storms in the solar system.
Editor's Note: You can monitor the ongoing storm yourself. Simply look at Mars through a telescope. Are markings on the planet crisp and distinct -- or hazy? Click here for observing tips.
July 16, 2001
presented by ThursdaysClassroom.com
KID'S STORIES: 3rd and 4th grade -- 5th to 8th grade -- 9th grade and older
- Discussion Questions: These discussion questions are crafted for 3rd to 8th graders, but they will work in many high school classes, too. [lesson plan][activity sheet]
- Gobble that Dust Storm! Kids can gobble a Martian dust storm before it gobbles them. Cinnamon toast will never taste the same! [lesson plan]
- The Color of Mars Dust: Younger kids will enjoy coloring these pieces of original art by Duane Hilton as they learn about dust storms on Mars. [A Sneaky Dust Devil] [Umbrellas Won't Help]
|Use this button to download the story with lessons and activities in printer-friendly Adobe PDF format:||
Thermal Emission Spectrometer - Scientists are using "TES" -- an Arizona State University-built instrument on board NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft -- to monitor the ongoing dust storm.
Mars Climate FAQ: What causes Martian dust storms? - from NASA/Ames
A Close Encounter with the Planet Mars -- Earth and Mars are unusually close together. Stargazers won't want to miss the Red Planet blazing bright in the midnight sky.
All the World's a Stage .... for Dust -- Tune in to a NASA website and watch giant dust clouds as they ride global rivers of air, cross-pollinating continents with topsoil and microbes.
Mobile Homes for Microbes -- African dust that crosses the Atlantic and brings beautiful sunsets to Florida also carries potentially harmful bacteria and fungi, a new study shows.
The Pacific Dust Express -- North America has been sprinkled with a dash of Asia! A dust cloud from China crossed the Pacific Ocean recently and rained Asian dust from Alaska to Florida.
Right: In the upper frame a massive dust cloud swirls away from the Martian north pole. In the lower frame a similar-looking cloud blows westward over the Atlantic Ocean from Earth's Sahara Desert. Credit: Mars Global Surveyor (top) and SeaWiFs (bottom). [more]
More Mars Links:
A Picture Gallery of Martian Dust Storms - from JPL's Mars Exploration web site
Soviet Landers fall prey to Martian Dust - from ThinkQuest.org
Hubble's Best-ever Image of Mars: On June 26, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm
Mariner 9 mission to Mars -NASA's Mariner 9 spacecraft arrive at Mars in 1971, right in the middle of a global dust storm.
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