Space may be the final frontier, but scientists are already assessing its patterns, a recent study from NASA shows.
Space experts computed the patterns of Mars' storms by handling temperature data instead of visible dust movements. The indicator presents the advantage of offering accurate info, even at times when dust levels are reduced.
NASA's Mars orbiters revolved around Mars for six years until the researchers decided they had enough data. The space agency has been deploying and using orbiters around the Red Planet since 1997. The observations are revealing that three large types of regional dust storms happen in sequence.
The pattern takes place at approximately identical times each year, affecting the southern hemisphere during Martian summer and spring. Keep in mind that Martian years take about two years in Earth time.
"When we look at the temperature structure instead of the visible dust, we finally see some regularity in the large dust storms," notes David Kass of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
As the dust in the Red Planet's atmosphere heats up, temperature differences of as much as 63 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) can happen between "clear air" and dusty air. The heating has a direct impact on planetary winds, leading to downward motion, which heats up the air near the dust-heated regions.
By looking at the temperature variations, researchers can observe the cumulative effects that dust storms have on the planet, both directly and indirectly. Kass and his team studied temperature data from a layer located about 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the Martian surface. The data from the Red Planet's climate was gathered using infrared observations to assess atmospheric temperature.
"Recognising a pattern in the occurrence of regional dust storms is a step toward understanding the fundamental atmospheric properties controlling them," Kass mentions.
The understanding of Mars atmospheric air movements is still in its infancy. It should be noted that the discoveries do not apply to local storms, which are too shallow to make a difference to the Martian sky or to the global storms that engage the whole planet.
Big scale storms usually take place during summer in Mars' southern hemisphere. Once started, bigger storms can last weeks to months. Similarly to Earth, seasons on Mars are generated by the tilt of the planet. However, the tilt of Mars' axis keeps a part of the planet closer to the sun, thus significantly hotter.
One of the main reasons for researching Mars' atmosphere is to ensure the safety of future missions on the planet, be it manned or robotic. According to a report from February, the space agency is already working on a new propulsion system that could drastically reduce interplanetary traveling time.