Mars is a simple planet compared to Earth. There is almost no atmosphere, there are no oceans, and the planet has only trace amounts of water. Its climate should be very simple to model, predict, and understand, but Mars is periodically ravaged by dust storms that can engulf the entire planet and no one understands why.
On Earth, dust storms are driven by winds, but Mars has less than 1% of Earth’s atmosphere, so it’s hard to understand how the thin air can lift any dust at all, or how dust storms far more extensive and violent than anything found on Earth are physically possible.
Strangest of all are the dust devils. We have them here too, but on Mars one can sometimes observe thousands of dust devils, separated by only a few hundred feet. That’s not supposed to happen.
The Opportunity Mystery
The mystery deepens when we consider what happened to the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were launched in 2003 and landed on Mars in 2004. Although both were equipped with solar panels, NASA expected the devices to be covered in dust quickly and predicted that they would run out of juice after three months on the Martian surface.
As expected, the solar panels became ever more covered in dust, until one day they were suddenly clean and charging normally. It was as if a little troll had appeared in the night and cleaned the rovers while they were sleeping. No one understood why but NASA was happy and extended the life span of the rovers from three to eight months.
However, the mysterious dust cleaning continued to occur periodically, and Opportunity was in operation for nearly 15 years – 60 times longer than initially planned. Only after a major dust storm in June 2018 was the rover so completely covered in dust that even the enigmatic troll couldn’t help it.
Electricity Plays a Role?
Some scientists are growing more aware of the role that electricity may play in the weather of Mars. Most of the planet-engulfing dust storms coincide with major electrical storms on the sun. Those who were born early enough to remember the old tube TVs know that they were dust magnets. By antistatic treatment, one was able to clean the surfaces and prevent dust from sticking. Could such electric phenomena be operating on Mars, on a planetary scale?
The solar activity connection certainly warrants further investigation. If it is found to be an essential factor in Martian weather, it opens a can of worms on Earth because no climate model takes electricity into account. Climate science contrarians have long claimed that the sun plays an important and unappreciated role in our planet’s physical wellbeing. The dust mysteries on Mars suggest they may be right.
One thing is sure: Our lack of understanding of the climate on a simple planet such as Mars calls into question the claims of a comprehensive understanding of our own complicated Earth.
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