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How researchers are learning to forecast the weather on Mars

One of the ongoing challenges of landing both robotic explorers and, eventually, people on Mars is the unpredictable nature of the weather there. With massive dust storms which can blow in and change the temperature and density of the atmosphere, it’s extremely hard to predict exactly what conditions to expect when landing a craft on the planet.

To help with this problem, scientists are chipping away at the big problem of how to create a martian weather forecast. Now, researchers from Yale university have gotten one step closer to figuring this challenge out by modeling the weather on Mars based on information about Earth’s jet stream.

An illustration of a Martian weather forecast.
An illustration of a Martian weather forecast. Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein; Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

“I believe the first accurate forecasts of perhaps a few Mars days may be only a decade away,” said lead author J. Michael Battalio, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and planetary sciences in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “It is just a matter of combining better observational datasets with sufficiently refined numerical models.

“But until then, we can rely upon connections between the climate and weather to help anticipate dust storms.”

Battalio and his colleagues noticed a similarity between the eddies in Earth’s atmosphere created by the jet stream and the conditions in the southern hemisphere of Mars. So they used modeling to investigate Mars’s yearly weather patterns, which can include events from small dust devils to massive global dust storms. These dust conditions can cause a lot of problems for missions, particularly for those which rely on solar power as the dust can cover and block solar panels.

“Understanding and predicting these events is vital for the safety of missions, particularly those that rely on solar power, but also for all missions as they land on the surface,” Battalio said. “During larger regional events, the dust can become so thick at times as to make daytime seem as dark as the middle of the night. Even without a large, dramatic event, regional storms are a periodic feature.”

Indeed, a dust storm was responsible for the eventual demise of the Opportunity rover, and the InSight lander recently had to go into hibernation to conserve its power over the winter when sunlight is at its weakest.

The research is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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