Global dust storm could hit Mars soon: NASA

Washington: The Red Planet is likely to experience a global dust storm in the next few months, encircling the planet in a thick haze and obscuring surface features beneath, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have predicted.

“Mars will reach the midpoint of its current dust storm season on October 29th of this year. Based on the historical pattern we found, we believe it is very likely that a global dust storm will begin within a few weeks or months of this date,” James Shirley, a planetary scientist at JPL, Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

The researchers believe that correctly predicting dust storm on Mars would be a boon for future astronauts there. Although the force of the wind on Mars is not as strong as portrayed in an early scene in the movie “The Martian”, dust lofted during storms could affect electronics and health, as well as the availability of solar energy, the researchers said.

The most recent Martian global dust storm occurred in 2007, significantly diminishing solar power available to two NASA Mars rovers then active halfway around the planet from each other — Spirit and Opportunity.

“The global dust storm in 2007 was the first major threat to the rovers since landing,” JPL’s John Callas said.

The Red Planet has been observed shrouded by planet-encircling dust nine times since 1924, with the five most recent planetary storms detected in 1977, 1982, 1994, 2001 and 2007. Discerning a predictable pattern for which Martian years will have planet-encircling or global storms has been a challenge.

In an earlier study published in the journal Icarus, Shirley reported finding a pattern in the occurrence of global dust storms when he factored in a variable linked to the orbital motion of Mars. Other planets have an effect on the momentum of Mars as it orbits the solar system’s center of gravity. This effect on momentum varies with a cycle time of about 2.2 years, which is longer than the time it takes Mars to complete each orbit: about 1.9 years.

The relationship between these two cycles changes constantly.

Shirley found that global dust storms tend to occur when the momentum is increasing during the first part of the dust storm season. None of the global dust storms in the historic record occurred in years when the momentum was decreasing during the first part of the dust storm season.

The paper noted that conditions in the current Mars dust-storm season are very similar to those for a number of years when global storms occurred in the past. Observations of the Martian atmosphere over the next few months will test whether the forecast is correct.