New images of weather-in-motion on Mars show the red planet as it really is: “a quiet but dynamic world.”
That’s the description from enterprising geologist and amateur astronomer Justin Cowart, who explains in a recent Planetary Society column that by working with still images shot by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, he was able to create this celestial view of the surface of Mars:
Mars seems static from still images and with no video of the red planet yet, we haven’t seen the dust storms on Mars that can cover continent-sized areas, and last for weeks. Every three Mars years (that’s about five Earth years) one of these dust storms transforms into a storm so huge that it encircles the entire planet. Yet, while these are confirmed facts — there’s no actual Mars dedicated weather satellite — we know the storms are happening, but we can’t see their movement.
These images use for Cowart’s animation were taken with the ESA’s High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) during a 2011 storm season in Mars’ northern hemisphere. The HRSC takes images in 70-second increments so that it can create stereographic color maps of Mars that are presented as a sphere onto a plane. Because these images are taken at offset viewing angles, they also become time-lapse images that can be turned into an animated GIF file.
“Still images of Mars often give us a false impression that Mars is a dead planet, with nothing going on other than the occasional dust storm,” Cowart writes. “But these images don’t tell the planet’s full story.”
While the storms in these images look foreboding, eventual Mars colonists won’t really need to worry about a disaster like we saw in The Martian. Martian dust storms, which are poised to turn into their annual global dust storm sometime this month, have cut off the use of two rovers in the past.
But NASA thinks it’s unlikely that a storm would actually cause someone on Mars to become stranded. Winds typically don’t go above 60 milds per hour, meaning they couldn’t tip or destroy major mechanical equipment.
What they would need to pay attention to is the actual dust, which could block the sunlight necessary to the run solar panels that will likely provide energy to future colonies. Even more concerning for colonists — the annual Perseids meteor shower that pummels the Red Planet every August.