Dust storms are quite common on Mars because the terrain is so dry and well… dusty.
Certain times of the year are worse than others but one thing is certain: if you go to Mars, you have to be able to cope with dust!
One of the big design challenges for Mars robots is making sure that robots aren’t damaged by the dust and can still operate safely. After all, dust isn’t good for delicate instruments – it can clog them up and cause damage like scratches, a bit like if you drop a gadget like a phone or tablet on the beach!
Robot designers need to ensure that anything delicate is protected from the dust – which can travel at 60 miles an hour.
Another dust related problem is that power is generated through solar panels… which collect sunlight to convert into electricity… which is hard to do if the solar panels are covered in a thick layer of dust! Luckily the wind that deposits dust on the panels will also blow most of it away.
Designers need to make the solar panels from materials which are very smooth and don’t collect dust for long and make the solar panels as big as possible to capture as much sunlight as possible. But careful – too big and they’re too heavy for the robot to carry around.
One could switch the robots off when there’s a dust storm, but as dust storms can last quite a long time, if you waited for clear skies, well, you might be waiting a very long time. The ExoMars Rover is planned to operate for 218 sols – a sol is a Martian day. As the dust seasons can lasts for 296 sols, it makes sense for the mission planners to avoid this period altogether if possible.
But because dust can’t be 100% avoided, scientists schedule tasks and experiments to be done during dusty times which won’t need to use the cameras or other delicate external equipment.
You can hear Deep Space High: Destination Mars on Fun Kids Radio or listen to the series below!