Titan First-Ever Detected Dust Storms Prove the Moon is More Earth-like than Ever

Ever since the Cassini orbiter entered the Saturn system in July of 2004, scientists and the general public have been treated to a steady stream of data about this ringed giant and its many fascinating moons. In particular, a great deal of attention was focused on Saturn’s largest moon Titan, which has many surprising Earth-like characteristics.

These include its nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the presence of liquid bodies on its surface, a dynamic climate, organic molecules, and active prebiotic chemistry. And in the latest revelation to come from the Cassini orbiter, it appears that Titan also experiences periodic dust storms. This puts it in a class that has so far been reserved for only Earth and Mars.

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Are Martian Dust Storms Dangerous?

Just how dangerous are the terrifying dust storms that swarm Mars?

Brave explorers trek across the red dunes of Mars when a dangerous dust storm blows in. In moments, our astronauts are blasted by gale force winds and driving sand, reducing visibility to zero. The brave heroes stumble desperately through the driving onslaught, searching in vain for shelter from the catastrophic conditions. One is blown into a ravine, or right to the edge of the cliff, requiring a dramatic rescue and likely a terrible terrible sacrifice and important parting words showing the true mettle of our heroes.

“Tell my Asuka… printed body pillow… I loved her…”

Will they make it? Why the heck would anyone land on that dusty irradiated death trap? Actually, a better question might be “Why do writers lean so hard on this trope?”. I’m looking at you Andy Weir.

Martian dust storms don’t just come from the fevered imagination of the same sci-fi writer who gave us a lush Venusian jungle, Saturnalian lava flats and Moon floor cheese. These dust storms are all too real and they drive at serious windspeeds.

NASA’s Viking landers clocked them at 100 km/h during dust storm season. Which is a thing on Mars. The landers sheltered enough from the big storms that they probably didn’t experience the greatest winds they’re capable of.

Scientists have seen evidence that sand is shifted around on the surface of Mars, and the regolith requires high wind speeds to pick it up and shove it around. Dust devils spin up across the surface, and rotate at hurricane speeds.

When the wind is above 65 km/h, it’s fast enough to pick up dust particles and carry them into the atmosphere encasing the planet in a huge, swirling, shroud. Freaked out yet? Is this dangerous? It sure sounds dangerous.

Apologies to all the fearmongering sci-fi writers, but actually, it’s not that dangerous. Here’s why.

First off, you’re not on Mars. It’s a book. Second, it’s a totally different experience on Earth. Here when you feel the wind blasting you in the face, or watch it dismantle a house during a tornado, it’s the momentum of the air particles hammering into it.

An illustration of a dust storm on Mars. Credit: Brian Grimm and Nilton Renno
An illustration of a dust storm on Mars. Credit: Brian Grimm and Nilton Renno

That momentum comes from air particle density and their velocity. Sadly, the density of the atmosphere on Mars is a delicate 1% of what we’re used to. It’s got the velocity, but it just doesn’t have the density.

It’s the difference between getting hit by a garden hose and a firehose with the same nozzle speed. One would gets you soaked, the other can push you down the street and give you bruises.

To feel a slight breeze on Mars similar to Earth, you multiply the wind speed by 10. So, if the wind was going about 15 km/h here, you’d need to be hit by winds going about 150 km/h there to have the same experience.

It’s not impossible for winds to go that fast on Mars, but that’s still not enough wind to fly a kite. To get it off the ground your mission buddy holds the kite, and you run around in the dumb Martian sand like a try-hard ass.

It would fly for a second and then crash down. You’d wonder why you even brought a kite to Mars in the first place because it’s NEVER windy enough.

Boo hoo. Your Mars kite doesn’t work. Good news! You’re on Mars!
Bad news. It was a one way trip. Good news! A wizard has made you immortal!
Bad news. The wizard has brought to life the entire fictional cast of the Twilight series and they’re also there and immortal. Have fun brooding with your new dorky friends, FOR ETERNITY.

What I’m saying is you could stand on the red planet restaurant patio and laugh at anything the weather system could throw at you. That is unless, you’re solar powered.

Opportunity Rover. Credit: NASA
Opportunity Rover. Credit: NASA

Mars gets regular dust storms. From time to time, they can get truly global. In 2001, a storm picked up enough dust to shroud the entire planet in a red haze. Temperatures went up as dust helped trap heat in the atmosphere. This storm lasted for 3 months before temperatures cooled, and the dust settled back down again.

During a storm in 2007, dust blocked 99% of the light reaching the solar panels of the Opportunity rover. This severely decreased the energy it had to power its instruments, and most importantly, the heaters. Ultimately, it was possible that the cold could kill the rover, if the dust hadn’t subsided quickly enough.

If you happen to see a movie or read a book about an astronaut on Mars dealing with a dangerous dust storm, don’t worry. They’ll be fine, the wind won’t shred them to pieces. Instead, focus on unbreathably thin atmosphere, the bone chilling cold, or the constant deadly radiation.

That and where’s their food come from again? Well, now you know dust storms aren’t a big issue. Want to travel to Mars? Tell us in the comments below.

If you haven’t checked it out yet, go read “The Martian”. Jay and I loved the pants off it and we can’t wait to see the film version.

View from Orbit of a Huge White Sands Dust Storm

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It’s clear from this image of why a region in New Mexico, USA is called ‘White Sands.’ The dust plumes in this photograph taken by an astronaut on board the International Space Station show a dust storm in the White Sands National Monument. But this is a huge dust storm. The white dust plumes stretch across more than 120 kilometers (74 miles).

Caused by winds that channel the dust through a low point in the mountains, the vigorous winds are lifting dust particles from the valley floor to more than 1200 meters over the mountains. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite also captured a wider, regional view of the same storm on the same day.

The sand dunes of this national monument are white because they are composed of gypsum, a relatively rare dune-forming mineral. The dunes’ brilliance, especially contrasted against the nearby dark mountain slopes, makes them easily identifiable to orbiting astronauts. The white speck of the dunes was even visible to the Apollo astronaut crews looking back at Earth on the way to the Moon.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Apocalyptic Time-Lapse Video of Massive Phoenix Dust Storm

This isn’t space and astronomy-related, but this video of the massive dust storm that swept through the Phoenix area yesterday is just amazing, if not apocalyptic! Mike Olbinski, a photographer from the area shot this timelapse, and on his website says, “There are really not many words to describe this dust storm, or what we call it here (and they also do in places like the Sahara Desert)…a haboob. This was a haboob of a lifetime. I’ve lived in Phoenix for my entire 35 years of existence and have never seen anything like this before. It was incredible.”
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Sand Storm

Spring Sandstorm Scours China

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A sand storm, also known as a dust storm is an atmospheric event when strong winds lift dust from one region and carry it into another. They’re most common in arid, desert regions where there’s little vegetation to hold the topsoil and sand down. Large sand storms can carry dust thousands of kilometers; dust that started in the Arabian desert can be dropped into the Pacific Ocean.

Sand storms get going when there’s a very dry region, without wet soil to hold the particles together. The smallest particles of sand can be pulled out of the ground by the wind, and held in suspension by the wind. It’s thought that static electricity in the storm can cause even more particles to pull out of the ground in addition to the wind effect. In some cases the dust is held low to the ground, but with the right atmospheric conditions, the sand can be carried more than 6 km high in the atmosphere.

Although sand storms are a natural event, it’s believed that poor farming techniques contribute to the problem. As the topsoil is depleted and erodes away by farming and grazing animals, it exposes the underlying sand and dust. This situation led to the huge dust storms of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s in the United States.

A dust storm can be quite a hazard if you get caught in one. The storms can spread over hundreds of kilometers, with driving winds that can be over 40 km/h. The sand can be thick enough to obscure visibility down to a very short distance. The dust can also be a danger to people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Dust storms don’t just happen on Earth, they can also happen on Mars. In fact, dust storms can become so large on Mars they obscure the entire planet. When NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft arrived at Mars in 1971, there was a huge dust storm raging. Only the volcano Olympus Mons was visible above the haze of the dust storm. The most recent planet-wide dust storm occurred in 2007, posing a risk to the Mars Exploration Rovers. They rely on sunlight to power their solar panels, but the dust settling on their panels was reducing their power output.

We have written many articles about sand storms for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the black sand beaches, and here are some sandstorm pictures.

If you’d like more info on sandstorms, check out Visible Earth Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.