The weather on Earth can be extreme and downright impressive at times, but Mars has probably beaten us. The annual storm season on Mars does not include torrential rains, but dust storms can completely encircle the planet. The current storm season on Mars resulted in one of these monstrous storms, but they all begin as small waves of dust in the thin Martian atmosphere. The European Space Agency (ESA) just posted a picture from earlier this year representing the initial stages of a Martian dust storm.
Mars has a thin atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide. The planet has seasons, like Earth, that expose the polar caps to more solar energy. As a result, the atmosphere becomes denser and more capable of sweeping away the Martian fines. That is what is happening in the image above, which is the beginning of a large dust storm near the north polar region of the planet.
The image comes from ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, which has been observing Mars for almost 15 years. The probe has been so successful that it’s easy to forget the loss of the Beagle 2 lander from the same mission. Scientists used the spacecraft’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) to capture this image of the wavefront in the Utopia Planitia region in April 2018.
This storm started early in the storm season for Mars, and in any other year, it would be considered quite large. Several weeks later, the current superstorm began to the southwest in the Arabia Terra region. That storm currently covers the entire planet, which could spell doom for the brave little rover Opportunity. NASA says Opportunity went into failsafe mode a few weeks ago when light levels dropped and the robot could no longer recharge its batteries.
Images like the one captured by Mars Express could help scientists understand the Martian climate. The feedback loop that creates these gigantic dust storms every few years is still not well understood. Some, like Storm Utopia Planitia, dissipate after reaching the size of a small US state, Others, like Storm Arabia Terra, expand to cover the entire surface. If humanity intends to establish a permanent presence on Mars one day, knowing how to predict and mitigate Martian dust storms will be vital.