In Brief
  • Planetary scientist James Shirley has suggested a model that could help predict when Mars' global dust storms are most likely to occur.
  • The winds in the strongest Martian storms top out at about 97 km/h (60 mph), less than half the speed of some hurricane-force winds on Earth.

A Global Threat

In preparation for the eventual manned missions to the red planet, scientists are investigating everything from Mars’ atmospheric conditions to how to grow food with Martian soil. But one weather phenomenon has consistently stumped astronomers: Mars’ dust storms.

Mars gets a large variety of dust storms, everything from small dust devils to massive “global” storms. When these storms coalesce, they become more regional systems, as big as continents. Rarely, these regional systems grow big enough that they become global surface features. Such storms are obviously very troublesome when it comes to landing on the red planet.


Now, planetary scientist James Shirley has suggested a model that could help predict when Mars’ global dust storms are most likely to occur. During the course of Mars’ orbit, the planet’s momentum alters based on the net attractions that go on around it. The planet eventually has to give that momentum back.

Shirley predicts that these global storms occur in periods when Mars’ angular momentum is increasing (due to the aforementioned forces) and the planet is in the first part of the dust storm season. Shirley points out that no global storm “occurred in years when the momentum was decreasing during the first part of the dust storm season.”

But unlike popular depictions of Martian dust storms ( i.e. The Martian), these dust storms aren’t strong enough to rip apart major equipment. Still, accurate predictions are necessary for extended colonization and landings for a number of reasons.

ExoMars and More

Predicting these global storms has been one of the priorities of anybody who wants to go Mars as, back in 2007, two Martian rovers had to be placed in survival mode after a global dust storm severely cut into their solar supply.

It’s this unpredictability that scientists are trying to counter. Enter: the Schiaparelli lander of the ExoMars mission, which is set to arrive at the red planet today. In theory, it should have already touched down, but confirmation will take hours. Finding the signal in an “ocean of noise” is not going to be quick, according to ESA’s Andrea Accomazzo.

The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to test landing technologies for future missions. It carries a small weather station to measure temperature, humidity, and factors from these dust storms. Ultimately, this would could greatly assist us with future landing efforts.

Today’s landing is meant to be a stepping stone for subsequent missions that will search for life on Mars. In 2018, for example, NASA hopes to land the Insight probe on Mars. SpaceX has been vocal about plans to drop one of its Dragon capsules on the Martian surface. Further, Europe and Russia already have a follow-up ExoMars collaboration for 2020.

It’s going to be a busy decade on the Red Planet.