Dust storms are a serious hazard on Mars. While smaller storms and dust devils happen regularly, larger ones happen every year (during summer in the southern hemisphere) and can cover continent-sized areas for weeks. Once every three Martian years (about five and a half Earth years), the storms can become large enough to encompass the entire planet and last up to two months. These storms play a major role in the dynamic processes that shape the surface of Mars and are sometimes visible from Earth (like the 2018 storm that ended the Opportunity rover’s mission).
When Martian storms become particularly strong, the friction between dust grains causes them to become electrified, transferring positive and negative charges through static electricity. According to research led by planetary scientist Alian Wang at Washington University in St. Louis, this electrical force could be the major driving force of the Martian chlorine cycle. Based on their analysis, Wang and her colleagues believe this process could account for the abundant perchlorates and other chemicals that robotic missions have detected in Martian soil.
Exploring Mars is hazardous work. Robotic missions that are sent there have to contend with extreme temperatures, dust storms, intermittent sunlight, and rough terrain. In recent years, two robotic missions were lost due to dust alone, and all that roving around has done a number on the Curiosity rover’s treads. It’s understandable why mission teams are pleasantly surprised when their missions make it through a rough patch. This was the case with the Ingenuity team when they discovered that the rotorcraft, which has been exploring Mars alongside Perseverance, survived the night and is back in working order.
Testing how robotic helicopters fair in the Martian environment is one of the objectives of Ingenuity, which is the first mission of its kind on Mars. On May 3rd, 2022, the mission team learned that Ingenuity had lost power after trying to keep itself warm during the cold Martian night. Luckily, there was enough sunlight the following morning for the little rotorcraft to power up its batteries again and resume normal operations. This was a welcome relief, given that the Opportunity rover and InSight lander were both lost to the extreme cold and dust that characterize a Martian winter.
In January 2004, NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity (aka “Oppy”) landed in two completely different locations on Mars. Their missions were only designed to last 90 sols (approximately 90 Earth days), but they exceeded these parameters, and then some. While Spirit lasted until 2010, Opportunity lasted another astonishing eight years, when it sent its last transmission to Earth in June 2018. During its more than 14-year tenure on the Red Planet, not only did Opportunity gain celebrity status as being the longest serving planetary robotic explorer in history, but it helped reshape our understanding of Mars’ present and past. Now with the help of Amazon Studios and available on Amazon Video, we can re-live the adventure of this incredible rover with Good Night Oppy.
Despite decades of exploration and study, Mars still has its fair share of mysteries. In particular, scientists are still trying to ascertain what happened to the water that once flowed on Mars’ surface. Unfortunately, billions of years ago, the Martian atmosphere began to be stripped away by the solar wind, which also resulted in the loss of its surface water over time – although it was not entirely clear where it went and what mechanisms were involved.
To address this, a team of scientists recently consulted data obtained by three orbiter missions studying the Martian atmosphere. In the process, they found evidence that the smaller regional dust storms that happen almost annually on Mars are making the planet drier over time. These findings suggest that storms are a major driving force behind the evolution of Mars’ atmosphere and its transition to the freezing and desiccated place we know today.
Lightning is one of the most powerful forces in nature. Up to 1 billion volts of electricity can flow into a strike in less than a second. Such a large energy buildup can be created by even a relatively simple cause – two particles rubbing together. A team at the University of Oregon has now studied whether those simple interactions might cause lightning on a place it hasn’t been seen before – on Mars.
Data in the world of astronomy is spread out in so many different places. There are archives for instruments on individual spacecraft and telescopes. Sometimes all that is needed to get new insight out of old data is to collect it all together and analyze a whole set rather than isolated instances. That is exactly what happened recently when a team from the Harvard Center for Astrophysics collected and analyzed data about almost 15,000 dust storms that have taken place on Mars over the last eight Martian years.
When a huge dust storm on Mars—like the one in 2018—reaches its full power, it can turn into a globe-bestriding colossus. This happens regularly on Mars, and these storms usually start out as a series of smaller, runaway storms. NASA scientists say that these storms can spawn massive towers of Martian dust that reach 80 km high.
And that phenomenon might help explain how Mars lost its water.
The enduring, and maybe endearing, mystery around Mars is what happened to its water? We can say with near-certainty now, thanks to the squad of Mars rovers and orbiters, that Mars was once much wetter. In fact that planet may have had an ocean that covered a third of the surface. But what happened to it all?
As it turns out, the global dust storms that envelop Mars, and in particular the most recent one that felled the Opportunity rover, may offer an explanation.
NASA has shared Opportunity’s final photograph from the surface of Mars. The rover’s final resting place is in Endeavour Crater, and barring any statistically unlikely event, it will sit there for centuries, millennia, or even longer. And instead of a tombstone, we have this final image.
Could this be the end of the Opportunity rover? There’s been no signal from the rover since last summer, when a massive global dust storm descended on it. But even though the craft has been silent and unreachable for six-and-a-half months, NASA hasn’t given up.
When Opportunity landed at Meridiani Planum on Mars in January 2004, it’s planned mission length was only 90 days. Since that day, which seems so long ago now, 15 years have passed, and over one billion people have been born on Earth. Six months ago, the rover stopped working, maybe for good. So by every measure, Opportunity has been a stunning success.