CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - In a few short hours, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will land on the red planet. Like shuttle landings and takeoffs here on Earth, the weather has to cooperate.
Without liquid water, Martian storms are a very different beast than what we see on Earth. The Martian atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, which is in a frozen state at the planet's poles, where temperatures are generally 220 degrees below zero.
Temperatures near -10° F are expected at the landing site. The cold temperatures won't bother the rover, but the main weather concern for the rover on the red planet are the massive dust storms that can span hundreds of miles due to huge temperature gradients.
Mars is roughly 142 million miles from the sun, so it receives only about half of the heat that reaches Earth. Additionally, its very thin atmosphere results in huge temperature swings. Temperature differences can be as dramatic as 100 degrees in the short distance from your head to your toes.
Think of how strong the winds get when strong cold fronts move in. The strongest fronts generally have differences of 60 degrees or so spread over a few miles. We're talking about 50-100 degree differences over a few meters. That will routinely kick off wind storms that swirl dust over the planet at over 125 mph.
All that Curiosity was built to stand once it arrives, but a large storm during the landing could push the rover well off its target. However, the weather does seem to be cooperating.
Over the last several days, scientists have been watching a huge Martian dust storm to the Southwest of the Curiosity's landing site, Gale Crater. Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity's mission, told reporters the storm should miss the landing site. "It will probably not reach Gale Crater by the time we land, and if it did, the amount of dust in that cloud is not going to affect the entry, descent and landing in any meaningful way."
Once it successfully lands, the one ton rover will begin a search for signs that there was or is life on Mars.
While a million things could go wrong during landing, the weather appears to be one thing scientists can check off their list of things to worry about.