Tuesday (June 12), NASA's Opportunity rover stopped communications amid a severe dust storm on the Red Planet. But while the storm hasn't killed the rover yet — Opportunity could still revive once the skies clear — how dangerous can storms on Mars get?
For fans of "The Martian" novel by Andy Weir, or the film based on that book, the answer may be a disappointment. Storms on Mars aren't quite as dramatic as the book or the film adaptation portray them to be. While Martian winds at the planet's surface can reach up to about 60 mph (about 97 km/h), this is less than half the speed of some hurricane winds here on Earth and probably not strong enough to rip apart or tip any major equipment, NASA officials said in a statement. [Mars Dust Storm 2018: How It Grew & What It Means for Opportunity]
However, even when winds on the Red Planet reach their highest speeds, wind on Mars isn't quite as powerful as it is on Earth. "Mars' atmospheric pressure is a lot less [than Earth's]. So, things get blown [around], but it's not with the same intensity," William Farrell, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in the statement.
So, "The Martian" film accurately shows Mark Watney sweeping dust off of his solar panels every day, because Martian dust particles accumulate and stick easily because they're slightly electrostatic. But dust storms on Mars aren't as powerful as they might seem based on the movie.
Still, Martian storms still could pose risks to humans. In a special NASA teleconference on June 13, researchers said that, while Mars' atmosphere is thin, there is still dust being raised. This could hypothetically complicate regular functioning and visibility for future crewed missions. Additionally, dust storms create "sort of a greenhouse effect in which the radiation that otherwise would be lost to space is trapped," heating up the planet, Rich Zurek, Mars Program Office chief scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the conference. Humans on the Martian surface will already have to contend with radiation, and this effect will only increase the risk.
Plus, Martian storms can grow to epic scale: The researchers said the current storm is expanding and could potentially stretch across the entire planet, which humans have seen happen on Mars before.
So, a Martian dust storm likely won't strand any future space colonists or rip any antennas off of equipment, like what happened in "The Martian." Instead, the dangers to humans would more likely range from radiation to dust accumulation (because of the static electricity), or possibly less-dramatic risks associated with winds, researchers said in the conference. Solar-powered tech will also continue to struggle against the dust that sticks to solar panels on rovers like Opportunity.
NASA is already seriously considering these potential threats to future space explorers. "We really need to understand these storms to the degree that we can have some level of forecasting ability," Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in the conference.
So, it turns out that dust storms on Mars aren't as cinematically dramatic as fans of "The Martian" may have thought. Still, NASA is working to protect future crewed missions from the dangers that may arise from Martian weather.