Is there lightning on Mars?

Is there lightning on Mars? Would lightning strikes endanger astronauts on Mars? Would static electricity be a factor to consider on Mars?
An astronaut orbiting over Bolivia captured a close-up of a lightning flash beneath a thunderhead on January 9, 2011. Image credit:  NASA

An astronaut orbiting over Bolivia captured a close-up of a lightning flash beneath a thunderhead on January 9, 2011. Image credit: NASA

There is lightning on Mars! Or at least, something like lightning occurs on Mars. In 2009, the first detections of lightning strikes on Mars were recorded, confirming something that planetary scientists had suspected already - electricity should arc through the Martian skies.

We knew a fair amount about Mars’ weather patterns even before detecting lightning, from a combination of orbiting spacecraft and our landers on the surface. These outposts have painted a picture of a thin atmosphere frequently tumbled into large dust storms. Mars has huge annual storms which can envelop the entire planet, and other strong storms that pop up irregularly through the year. On top of that, the dust on Mars is extremely fine, so once you begin to swirl it around in a wind, it’s reasonable to guess that the dust particles will start to rub on each other, and as you do that, you’ll start to build up an electric charge.

This static charge does more than just gradually build towards lightning; it’s also part of why the Mars rovers get so dirty. The rovers are dealing with more than just a fine sifting of dust falling out of the atmosphere, which a light breeze might easily remove; that dust is stuck to them like packing peanuts stick to your hands. It takes a stronger breeze - a new storm, or a wandering dust devil - to remove some of that dust, and it’s something that the long-lived Spirit and Opportunity rovers were both able to make use of on a couple of occasions.

A self-portrait taken by NASA's Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover's location in Gale Crater. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A self-portrait taken by NASA's Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover's location in Gale Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

However, as much as dust devils can help you out, they can also do the opposite, dumping more dust on top of your solar panels, which, for a solar powered craft, will limit the amount of energy you have available to do science with, and eventually drop the craft below the threshold of power it needs to operate. This is the current theory for what happened with both Spirit and Opportunity. The Curiosity rover is less affected by this particular issue since its power comes from radioactive decay, but Curiosity is still fully coated in the fine Martial soil. This dust is actually a concern for human exploration of Mars - it’s going to be hard to fully remove this dust from spacesuits, and breathing in a fine particulate is never good for your lungs.

The lightning itself is actually less likely to be a hazard to astronauts on the surface of Mars than the dust is; for one I would expect any humans on the surface of Mars to take shelter during these bigger storms. Unlike what was presented in The Martian, even the 60 mph winds that can occur during a dust storm wouldn’t feel as powerful as a similar wind on Earth, since the atmosphere is so much thinner. The air simply wouldn’t exert the same pressure against you in the same way. Even on Earth, the likelihood of being struck by lightning is very low, and on Mars the best guess is that the lightning would not really resemble the large bolts of lightning we see here on Earth.

More likely is that this lightning would resemble the arcing jolts of electricity you can create by shuffling along in socks on carpet and then touching a doorknob. In a dark room, you can see the filamentary discharge of electricity between your finger and the doorknob. On Mars, you might expect to see little flickers of electricity arcing between parts of the dust storm, faintly lighting up the night sky. To be a hazard to an astronaut or a rover, you’d have to be very, very unlucky.


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If we can't build a magnetic bubble for a spacecraft, how about a magnetic tunnel?

If it is impractical to provide an artificial magnetosphere on the ship which would travel to Mars (due to cosmic ray cascades in the material of the ship), what about generating the magnetic fields externally and projecting them into space at a series of waypoints? Or would the distance involved (225 million miles) be too great?
Our planet's magnetic field changes shape constantly due to strong winds from the sun. Image credit:  NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

Our planet's magnetic field changes shape constantly due to strong winds from the sun. Image credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

A little while ago we covered some of the main radiation based difficulties of sending people to Mars, and while the solar wind is generally not so troublesome, cosmic rays, which we are shielded from here on Earth, are both more dangerous and much harder to redirect or stop.

Generally we want the outer walls of our spacecraft to be pretty durable, both for airtightness, protection against space junk, and to help protect against the solar wind, which can be stopped by a pretty reasonable amount of shielding. However, as you build up your shield, cosmic rays will start to play a nastier role. While you certainly don’t want a cosmic ray to be able to pass straight through your spacecraft and hit your astronaut unhindered (they’re very energetic particles, the sort that bodies deal very badly with), when a cosmic ray hits a dense object like a wall, it doesn’t just bounce back the way it came from.

Standard spacecraft shielding, integrated into hull design, is strong protection from most solar radiation, but defeats this purpose with high-energy cosmic rays it simply splits into deadly showers of secondary particles. Image credit: NASA

Standard spacecraft shielding, integrated into hull design, is strong protection from most solar radiation, but defeats this purpose with high-energy cosmic rays it simply splits into deadly showers of secondary particles. Image credit: NASA

It creates a radiation cascade instead; what was one particle is now two, four, sixteen, and beyond, very rapidly, as the particle interacts with the dense material of the spacecraft wall. Sixteen slightly lower energy particles is mathematically worse than one high energy one, and a serious point of concern once we get out of the Earth’s magnetic shielding. So a very reasonable response is to ask if we can bring along our own magnetic shielding, to prevent the high energy cosmic rays from hitting the wall of the spacecraft in the first place. Theoretically, this should reduce the amount of radiation inside the spacecraft cabin, since it would reduce the number of cosmic rays that can make it all the way to the spacecraft shield. The main reason this is impractical right now is simply a logistical one - we don’t have a good way to build a generator for a sufficiently strong magnetic field which is also lightweight enough not to be hard to launch.

Setting up waystations would be an interesting way of approaching the same challenge. If there were a fixed orbital path between the Earth and Mars, and we could build a magnetic tube between the two planets, you could do away with the need to have an onboard magnetic bubble. Because you’re not trying to launch them on the spacecraft, you wouldn’t need to worry about the weight as much, but the magnetic field you’d have to generate would need to be much larger, to guarantee that the spacecraft (within errors) would definitely travel safely through the buffered region. The distances involved here are vast, and so setting up a series of waypoints would almost definitely be unfavorable, at least from an energy consumption perspective. There’s also the question of fueling those waypoints. Are they solar powered? Fission powered? What happens if their solar panels break down or they run out of energy? They’d also have to be able to correct their own orbits in order to be in the right places for the protection of the traversing spacecraft, and at this point we’re looking at a giant electromagnet with rockets, which is a great sounding device to have, but practically speaking, it’s a more powerful version of what we’d like to have on the spacecraft in the first place, and if we can get by with one device instead of several hundred, one is probably better.


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Why are NASA's space suits so clunky?

Why are NASA’s space suits so much clunkier than the ones in science fiction or video games?

NASA has a real problem with the space suits that they stick their astronauts in to perform space walks. They’re massive, hard to get into and out of, and phenomenally unwieldy. The fingers on an astronaut’s gloves are so hard to manage that NASA has run competitions trying to get a better design that’s easier to work in. Ideally, we want to be able to stick people in suits that are easy to move around in, while still providing all the protection they would need. This is really, really hard to do.

If your suit is designed for the vacuum of space, you need to have a pressurized suit. Right now, this is done by inflating the suit with air, to compress the body to a point where the astronaut is comfortable, but not so much that it’s so tightly inflated that the astronaut couldn’t bend any of their joints. (This actually was a pretty severe problem for the first Russian spacewalker; his suit was so pressurized he couldn’t get back into his ship without letting some air out. He had to loosen a gasket on his glove to let the air escape, and then he got decompressed so rapidly he got a pretty nasty case of the bends, which is the same problem scuba divers run into if they surface too quickly.) You also need a suit that will provide some radiation protection, protection from tiny pieces of space junk, and on top of all that, you need your astronaut to be comfortable inside it and able to get in and out of it relatively easily.

On top of that, you have additional challenges if you want to land on a planet. Generally speaking, you don’t want to track dirt in from outside, if you’re on the moon or Mars. The dust on the moon (and we suspect on Mars as well) is such a fine powder that it can become embedded in your lungs and do quite a bit of damage. Mars dust might be even worse for you, since a lot of Mars’s surface material is so chemically toxic that it would burn you like bleach - not something you want in your lungs.

Physics is really not on our side for this venture. We’re asking for a pressurized suit that’s still easily bendable, which is also radiation-resistant, and easy to get into and out of, and durable. If you want to go out on the surface, you need to be able to decontaminate it completely. This space suit has to be a pretty impressive piece of technology.

The solution so far for spacewalks has been the kind of inflatable suit we’re used to seeing our astronauts in. Science fiction films and video games tend to prefer suits that are at least partially skin-tight. These aren’t completely impossible, and at least one person at MIT has been working on trying to design a suit that pressurizes the astronaut through mechanical pressure of the suit on the body, rather than the balloon method of air pressure. The mechanical skin-tight suit is really hard to make, because you have to get even pressure over the entire suit, and have it bendy enough to not restrict motion, and be durable enough to not break any wires if you fall on a rock or from bending the suit repeatedly. These skin-tight suits are also a lot harder to decontaminate, so getting all the dust off of them after a trip outside would be really hard to guarantee. NASA has also been testing a suit that you can crawl into through the back. This would be handy, because it means you can leave the suit attached to the outside of the base, and you won’t have to worry so much about getting the dust off. On the other hand, it’s still pretty clunky.

So unlike the science fiction films and video games, which can invent new materials to evenly pressurize an astronaut’s body, and new ways to decontaminate the suit so no one gets chemical burns from the surface dust once they come inside, while still protecting from radiation and puncture damage, NASA is stuck with the materials and methods that we have right now. We’re working on new methods and new technologies, but for the moment we don’t have anything quite as stylish as science-fiction can manage.

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