New Study Reveals Solar Heat to be the Likely Cause of Dust Storms on Mars

Mars weather seen from the InSight lander. (Credit: NASA)

COLUMBIA, Md. and HOUSTON, May 16, 2022 (Universities Space Research Association PR) — A team of scientists, including Dr. Germán Martínez from the Universities Space Research Association, just published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study indicates there are seasonal energy imbalances in the amount of solar energy absorbed and released by Mars which is a likely cause of dust storms and could play an important role in understanding the climate and atmosphere of the red planet. 

The radiant energy budget (a term referring to the measurement of solar energy a planet takes in from the sun then releases as heat) of a planet is a fundamental metric. Based on observations from multiple missions, a team of scientists provided a global picture of Mars’ climate. Measurements from the NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, and InSight missions reveal strong seasonal and diurnal variations of Mars’ emitted power.  

“One of the most interesting findings is that energy excess—more energy being absorbed than produced—could be one of the generating mechanisms of dust storms on Mars,” says Ellen Creecy, the lead author of the study1 and a doctoral student from the University of Houston, Texas.

“Our results showing strong energy imbalances suggest that current numerical models should be revisited, as these typically assume that Mars’ radiant energy is balanced between Mars’ seasons,” said Dr. Germán Martínez, USRA Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) and co-author of the paper. “Furthermore, our results highlight the connection between dust storms and energy imbalances, and thus can provide new insights into the generation of dust storms on Mars.”

In this study, a team of scientists used observations from martian satellites, landers, and rovers to estimate Mars’ emitted energy globally as a function of season, including periods with a global dust storm. They found that there is a strong energy imbalance of ~15.3 % between Mars’ seasons, which is much larger than on Earth (0.4%) or Titan (2.9%). They also found that during the 2001 planet-encircling dust storm on Mars, the global-average emitted power decreased by 22% during daytime but increased by 29% during nighttime.

The results of this study, in combination with numerical models, have the potential to improve the current understanding of the martian climate and atmospheric circulations, which is important for the future human exploration of Mars and could perhaps foretell Earth’s own climate issues. 

About USRA 

Founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology, and engineering.  USRA operates scientific institutes and facilities, and conducts other major research and educational programs. USRA engages the university community and employs in-house scientific leadership, innovative research and development, and project management expertise. More information about USRA is available at www.usra.edu

About LPI 

The Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), operated by Universities Space Research Association, was established during the Apollo program in 1968 to foster international collaboration and to serve as a repository for information gathered during the early years of the space program. Today, the LPI is an intellectual leader in lunar and planetary science. The Institute serves as a scientific forum attracting world-class visiting scientists, postdoctoral fellows, students, and resident experts; supports and serves the research community through newsletters, meetings, and other activities; collects and disseminates planetary data while facilitating the community’s access to NASA science; and engages, excites, and educates the public about space science and invests in the development of future generations of explorers. The research carried out at the LPI supports NASA’s efforts to explore the solar system. More information about LPI is available at www.lpi.usra.edu