Mars rovers safe from lightning strikes, research finds

Mars rovers safe from lightning strikes, research finds
Credit score: NASA

If experiments executed in small bottles in a College of Oregon lab are correct, the friction of colliding Martian mud particles are unlikely to generate massive electrical storms or threaten the newly arrived exploration autos or, finally, human guests.


For 50 years since Viking landers and later orbiters detected silts, clays, wind-blown bedforms and on Mars, scientists have nervous in regards to the potential for giant lightning storms and whether or not static electrical energy generated by the planet’s principally basaltic rock particles may harm autos or human protecting gear.

Within the journal Icarus, a UO group stories that the friction attributable to making contact with one another could certainly produce electrical discharges on the floor and within the planet’s ambiance, however any ensuing sparks are more likely to be small.

Such issues had resurfaced in relation to the brand new NASA Mars mission, which efficiently put the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity robotic helicopter on the crimson planet Feb. 18.

Within the lab of volcanologist Josef Dufek, researchers used a vertical glass tube comparable in dimension to a water bottle measuring some four inches in diameter and eight inches in size. Inside it, they swirled as a stand-in for Martian mud in a sequence of experiments that allowed them to keep away from pitfalls that had stymied earlier analysis.

They decided that would seemingly be small, given the weak electrical fields, about 20 thousand volts per meter, supported by the Mars ambiance.

Earth’s ambiance, by comparability, can face up to electrical fields reaching three megavolts per meter, producing spectacular lightning storms frequent and typically lethal within the southeast United States, mentioned Joshua Méndez Harper, a analysis engineer within the Oregon Middle for Volcanology within the Division of Earth Sciences.

“Our experiments, and people of others earlier than us, recommend that on Mars it’s straightforward to get sparks once you agitate sand or mud,” Méndez Harper mentioned. “Nevertheless, it could be tough, even in massive mud storms or inside mud devils, to get very massive discharges or standard lightning as a result of the Martian ambiance is unhealthy at storing cost.”

Such frictional processes are skilled on Earth in a lot easier methods—by touching a doorknob after socks slide throughout carpet or sticking a balloon on a window after rubbing it on human hair.

Martian mud devils, Méndez Harper mentioned, could seem to glitter, crackle or faintly glow in darkish situations as they roll throughout Mars’ desiccated panorama. Nevertheless, discharges could also be so small that they might solely be detected utilizing the radio waves they emit at shut ranges.

Earlier experiments had been inconclusive as a result of particles have been swirled in a manner that put them involved with the partitions of the testing enclosures. Some experiments used particles of supplies not discovered on Mars. Such contacts could have produced charging not attribute of a Martian mud storm.

Méndez Harper, Dufek and George McDonald, a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers College, acquired across the wall-exposure limitation utilizing the glass tube. They created frictional charging by colliding particles of basaltic ash from Mexico’s Xitle volcanic eruption about 2,000 years in the past.

Collisions within the sealed tubes occurred at velocities anticipated in a light-weight Martian breeze, with particles away from outer partitions and in a pressurized, atmospheric strain of eight millibars of carbon dioxide, much like that on the Martian floor.

The volcanic rock used within the challenge is much like Martian basalt, as detected by rovers within the Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover missions and the mud analogs developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As a comparability, the researchers additionally allowed particles to contact surfaces overseas to anticipated situations on Mars. That created sparks however with a polarity completely different than within the new experiments.

“We have been curious about pursuing this work due to the variety of new missions to Mars and the potential of constraining observations,” mentioned Dufek, the UO’s Gwen and Charles Lillis Chair and director of the Oregon Middle for Volcanology.

“Quantifying charging and discharging conduct has a bearing on the transport of mud within the ambiance and has lengthy been studied in relation to modulating chemical reactions, together with synthesizing natural compounds,” he mentioned.

The low vitality of discharge on Mars as indicated by the brand new experiments means these results are unlikely to impression mechanical operations, Dufek mentioned.

Nonetheless, the Jezero Crater seems to usually expertise mud storms within the autumn and winter. That, McDonald mentioned, could present alternatives for rudimentary observations of electrostatic phenomena by the newly deployed rover.

One of many aims of its mission is to evaluate previous environmental situations. Proof for a extra substantial ambiance prior to now would have a bearing on the planet’s electrical surroundings and the way it has modified over time.

“The massive takeaway from this examine is that Mars could also be an electrically lively place, though in methods fairly completely different than the Earth,” Dufek mentioned. “The truth that analog Mars readily fees as much as the purpose of discharge even when grains didn’t rub in opposition to different surfaces means that future colonists could discover a world modified by static electrical energy in refined methods.”


A combined map of almost 15,000 dust storms on Mars


Extra info:
Joshua Méndez Harper et al. Detection of spark discharges in an agitated Mars mud simulant remoted from overseas surfaces, Icarus (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2020.114268

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Mars rovers protected from lightning strikes, analysis finds (2021, February 19)
retrieved 19 February 2021
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