June 22, 2022
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter deputy project scientist Leslie Tamppari explains how images from the orbiter’s HiRISE camera help scientists better understand the Martian winds. With the help of 80,000 citizen scientists who searched the orbiter’s images, hundreds of thousands of “wind fans” were identified on the surface of Mars.
Scientists use wind to understand the climate of Mars today and in the past. This wind data could also help them study why some dust storms grow globally and others don’t. Studying wind and dust will help future spacecraft and human missions.
For more information on NASA’s Mars missions, visit mars.nasa.gov†
MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari† Winds on Mars can both help and harm spacecraft. So we’re getting very creative in studying winds on the Martian surface over a wide area.
Raquel Villanueva: We are here at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the Space Flight Operations Facility, otherwise known as the Dark Room. This is where engineers send commands and receive data from JPL missions, including NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Now detailed images from the orbiter are helping scientists better understand the Martian winds. Leslie Tamppari is MRO’s deputy project scientist. Leslie, what are we seeing in these images?
Leslie Tamppari: So what you can see are dark spots on the surface of the ice near the southern polar region, and they’re created by jets of gas coming from underneath that ice, up through cracks and delivering that dust onto the ice. And the wind will carry that dust and lay it on the surface and form these bands. And what we can do with this information is we can look at the directions and the measures and try to understand what the wind field is doing. And I understand that volunteers played a big part in this research. Yes, they did. We took about 75,000 pictures all over Mars with our MRO HiRISE camera. We used citizen scientists, 80,000 volunteers to map these fans and map their directions and sizes.
Raquel Villanueva: Why is it important to study the wind direction on Mars?
Leslie Tamppari: Some of our landers and rovers have had wind measurements, but only in a few locations at a few different times. But winds are very important for understanding the current climate on Mars, as well as trying to understand how the climate was different in the past. We also sometimes have huge dust storms that occur on Mars, but we don’t understand why some storms become global and others don’t. So we’re trying to understand the wind field to try to put all these pieces together, to better understand Mars. And how does that information help protect NASA’s spacecraft? Right. It’s very important for not only the spacecraft, but probably for future human explorations as well, as dust can be hazardous to hardware. For example, on the Perseverance rover, we’re lucky enough to have a wind sensor and we’re measuring dust devils and a few of these dust devils and wind events were so big that they picked up not only dust, but also larger particles, particles the size of sand. And in fact, some wind sensors were damaged on the Perseverance rover. At other locations we have hardly seen dust devils. For example, the InSight lander has solar panels. The solar panels are completely covered with dust and the power is decreasing. And we’d love to see some dust devils pass by so they can clean up those solar panels and provide InSight with some more power. So learning about the wind and the different environments and how they change about Mars will really help us plan not only for the conditions for the current spacecraft there, but also plan better for the future.
Raquel Vilanueva: Thank you, Leslie. Follow for the latest updates at NASA, JPL and at NASA’s Mars on social media. Or dive deeper into the mission websites at mars.nasa.gov.
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