Martian weather reports show extreme pressure swings

September 27, 2012  |   |  Comments
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dust storm on Mars

A dust storm on Mars from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Lab)

Curiosity, the NASA rover that landed on Mars last month, is sending remarkable weather observations from the Martian surface.

“From a weather point of view, Mars is the most ‘Earth-like’ of the other planets in our solar system, and many features of the weather there are similar to Earth,” says Kevin Hamilton, a pioneer in the area of computer modeling of the Martian atmosphere. Hamilton is the director of UH Mānoa’s International Pacific Research Center and a professor of meteorology.

“The exciting new result from Curiosity is a regular and truly enormous swing in atmospheric pressure through each day,” Hamilton said. “Measurements on Earth show a daily swing in pressure of only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the mean pressure, whereas Curiosity is measuring swings of almost 10 percent of the daily average pressure. We observe such a relative pressure change on Earth only with the passage of an extremely strong hurricane. At the Curiosity site on Mars, this enormous pressure swing occurs regularly every day.”

For Hamilton, these reports of huge pressure swings came as welcome news. Almost 20 years ago, he had predicted that the daily variation on Mars would be particularly large in two “action centers” on the equator located on opposite sides of Mars. Unlike the earlier NASA probes, Curiosity landed right in one of the equatorial action centers, where another factor comes into play—a resonance in the Martian atmosphere.

“The idea of resonance is familiar in everyday contexts like pushing a child in a playground swing—if you synchronize your pushes with the natural frequency of the swing, it is easy to send the child high into the air,” Hamilton explains. “The remarkable Curiosity observations provide strong confirmation of a resonant vibration of the global atmosphere.”

Hamilton suggests that the daily resonant cycles could play a role in explaining a long-standing mystery on Mars, namely how the winds become sufficiently strong to lift enough dust from the surface to create the remarkable global dust storms seen every few years on that planet. “Now that my theory of a daily resonant oscillation seems confirmed, it might help explain the trigger for these dust storms,” he said.

—Adapted from a UH Mānoa International Pacific Research Center news release.

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Category: Research

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