Martian Dust Could Help Explain Water Loss, Plus Other Learnings From Global Storm

NASA – Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) logo.

May 2, 2019

Dust is not just a household nuisance; it�s a planetary one, particularly on Mars. Before astronauts visit the Red Planet, we need to understand how the dust particles that often fill the atmosphere could impact them and their equipment.

The global Martian dust storm of summer 2018 � the one that blotted out sunlight for weeks and put NASA�s beloved Opportunity rover out of business � offered an unprecedented learning opportunity. For the first time, humans had eight spacecraft orbiting Mars or roving its surface � the largest cadre of robotic explorers ever to watch a global dust storm unfold.

Animation above: Images showing the advancing, global dust storm, taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera between Sol 2075 and Sol 2170 on Mars, which would’ve fallen between June 8, 2018, and Sept. 13, 2018, on Earth. Animation Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/York University.

Scientists around the globe are still analyzing reams of data, but preliminary reports include insights on how massive dust storms could have affected ancient Martian water, winds, and climate, and how they could affect future weather and solar power.

Martian dust storms are common, especially during southern hemisphere spring and summer. They tend to last a couple of days and can cover regions of the planet the size of the United States. But planet-encircling ones are unpredictable, sometimes lingering for months. Why? �We still don�t know what drives the variability, but the 2018 storm gives another data point,� says Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA�s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who�s a lead in NASA�s dust storm investigation.

NASA first saw a global dust storm up close in 1971 when our Mariner 9 spacecraft � the first to orbit another planet � arrived at a dust-engulfed Red Planet. Since then, we�ve seen global storms in 1977 (twice), 1982, 1994, 2001, 2007 and 2018.

Here are a few things we saw from space and from the ground during the recent global dust storm that helped address some open questions and exposed new ones:

Could global dust storms have blown away the planet�s water?