Blood-Red Winds of Mars

Earlier telescopes had difficulty in detecting the Martian storms which covered the barren planet with its bright, oxidized Martian soils. Dust devils whipped apart the soil-covered plains, revealing darker, sub-surface soil—with the Martian winds making the planet much warmer as its own climate change was developing. Not related to our own greenhouse climate changes or driven by greenhouse gases, this climate change is just as important for an overall understanding of how planets evolve and change.

A year before the NASA Phoenix Mars Lander mission headed off to Mars, it had been speculated whether or not the heavy Martian winds would influence the entire mission, blowing away the collections of soil and ice the Phoenix was after. Winds up to 11 mph were estimated at the time of the Phoenix landing site during the entire 3-month mission, which caused a change in plans for the Phoenix scoop to be moved closer to the science-instrument intakes before dropping the soil, according to Renno, an associate professor in the U-M College of Engineering’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.

An individual by the name of Lori Fenton, a Carl Sagan Center Principal Investigator, had published an article in the NATURE journal in April 2008 revealing the 2 degrees rise of the Martian global temperature over the past twenty years. The warming was attributed to the change in the “albedo” of the planet’s surface. When the dust devils or wind storms passes through the darker soil as the winds blow over the surface, more heat is absorbed and retained on the red planet, whereas the light, bright oxidized surface soil would reflect a lot of solar radiation. As the wind blows over the surface and reveals the darker soil underneath, the temperature begins to raise slightly as more and more dark soil is exposed.

Involved in this picture is the fact Mars has a very thin atmosphere, similar to what we have about 100,000 feet high above Earth. The winds from this thin atmosphere still impact Mars, with climate modelers and comparative planetologists monitoring the red planet for many years. Right now, the dust devils and wind gusts have saved the twin rovers time and time again, as their solar arrays pack in the dust which lowers their battery power. Each gust removes this grime, sweeping away the build-up to increase the power level for the 4-year batteries.

As advancements and high resolution instruments on the planet—such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Phoenix Scout rovers, and Mars Science Laboratory—begin to obtain more information on Martian winds and its unpredictable weather, NASA scientists can begin to look at the Martian winds and how they can work for us.