Dust ‘Til Dawn

A dust storm enshrouds Mars in 2001.

This image shows a view of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in August of 2001, after a planetwide storm had completely covered it with windblown dust as fine as cigarette smoke. (The image has been color-edited and magnified 2x from the original by Gordan Ugarkovic.) These dust storms can arise unexpectedly and at any time, usually originating from a depression called the Hellas Basin, and can last for months. They increase the apparent brightness of the planet (since the dust particles reflect sunlight better than Mars’ surface does) and can even raise the planet’s temperature as well. They may also release powerful discharges of static electricity (large dust storms and volcanic ash clouds on Earth can do the same thing) and could even create compounds hazardous to life itself! Still, scientists aren’t sure exactly what causes these storms or the mechanisms that make them go global. And most do not reach this scale… dust storms on Mars, although common, usually remain localized; since 1877 only 10 have been observed to completely cover the planet. Still, it’s a concern for any future exploration missions – manned or robotic. At the least the fine dust can get into sensitive mechanical parts and coat solar panels (which is exactly what happened to the Spirit rover on a few occasions… luckily dust devils came along and swept the panels clean!) But worst case scenarios conjure images of human explorers lost in a rusty red hurricane of superfine sand, with the danger of electrocution by static shocks built up in any metal equipment left standing or having critical life-support power reduced drastically by dust-covered solar panels. It may sound like science fiction, but on our neighboring planet it may one day be a very real danger to real people.

I thought of all this today after seeing the video below posted on Neatorama.com showing National Geographic cameraman Bob Poole getting caught in a monstrous dust storm while on assignment filming elephants in Africa. Since there was really nowhere to run – literally – he decided to just keep filming and make a show of it. Which he did, and what a show…the approaching storm stretches as far as the eye can see and towers into the sky! Once within it the air becomes black with dust and the winds hammer the truck the crew takes refuge in. For four hours the storm blows over them, ending with Poole wandering briefly into an eerie blood-red twilight of dusty air in which he states that he feels like he’s been “transported to Mars.” Maybe, but on Mars it could have lasted for months, not hours. Still, the video is a fascinating look at an event on our planet that closely resembles what people may soon experience on another.

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(Can’t see the video above? Click here to watch.)

Image: NASA/Hubble Image Team/Gordan Ugarkovic. All rights reserved. Video: National Geographic Channel 2010.

2 Comments

  1. Gordan says:

    That dust storm video is *seriously* awesome.

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    1. J. Major says:

      No kidding! To have a NatGeo filmmaker say that was the most amazing thing he’s ever seen is really something. I wonder how the equipment fared.

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