Why are winds blowing on Mars so dangerous? Mystery solved
When astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) tries to evacuate from his base in the film The Martian, inspired by the book of the same name, he is taken out by a ghastly storm, forcing his crew to abandon him on the alien world alone. While the storm was blown way out of proportion for the film, the wind gusts and dust storms on Mars are definitely punishing.
Researchers have now found that at least four whirlwinds pass Perseverance on a typical Martian day and that more than one per hour passes by during a peak hour-long period just in the afternoon. The observations have been made by the Perseverance rover, which is currently trundling in the Jazero crater in the inhospitable world.
The winds blowing in the crater are so intense that the sand carried in whirlwinds damaged two wind sensors on the rover. The team suspects the sand grains harmed the thin wiring on the wind sensors, which stick out from Perseverance's mast.
"Every time we land in a new place on Mars, it's an opportunity to better understand the planet's weather. We had a regional dust storm right on top of us in January, but we're still in the middle of the dust season, so we're very likely to see more dust storms," the paper's lead author, Claire Newman said in a statement.
The study published in Science Advances reveals new inputs about the weather phenomena observed by the rover in its first 216 Martian days. The findings will enable scientists to better understand dust processes on Mars and contribute to a body of knowledge that could one day help them predict the dust storms that Mars is famous for.
The SUV-sized rover made the observations using its cameras and a suite of sensors belonging to the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA). "Jezero Crater may be one of the most active sources of dust on the planet. Everything new we learn about dust will be helpful for future missions," Manuel de la Torre Juarez, MEDA's deputy principal investigator said.
The cameras picked up the wind gusts on three occasions that lifted large dust clouds, the biggest one spread over a massive area covering 4 square kilometers.
The Jazero crater on Mars is unique to study winds as it runs north to south across the planet, often lifting dust during the dust storm season. The greater activity in Jezero could be due to factors such as the roughness of its surface, which can make it easier for the wind to lift dust.
Winds and dust on Mars had killed the Curiosity rover and damaged its wind sensors. A similar fate now awaits the InSight lander, which is now completely covered in dust and is likely to run out of power in July and go into retirement forever.