That dust storm in 'The Martian' wouldn't actually be that bad (+video)

Could a dust storm on the Red Planet wreak the havoc depicted in 'The Martian'? Probably not, say experts.

  • close
    In the science fiction film "The Martian," a powerful dust storm puts astronauts in danger on Mars. In reality, dust storms on Mars don’t pack such a huge punch, NASA says.
    20th Century Fox
    View Caption
  • close
    A Martian dust storm might crackle with electricity, as in this artist's concept.
    View Caption
  • About video ads
    View Caption

Without giving away too many spoilers about "The Martian", there's an opening scene in the book (and upcoming movie) in which a dust storm causes major damage and literally blows away an astronaut. But could that actually happen on the Red Planet?

Despite the amazing space travel details in "The Martian," a film based on the book by Andy Weir, that Mars dust storm scene, which ultimately sets up the entire film, is itself blown away by Red Planet realities.

It turns out the atmosphere on Mars is so thin that even a strong wind wouldn't make that much of a difference, according to a NASA planetary scientist who studies planetary dust storms regularly (though he hasn't read the book). "You would probably feel a breeze, but it wouldn't be knocking you over," Michael Smith, who works at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told ["The Martian": An Epic Space Film in Photos]

Back in 1971, when the Mariner 9 spacecraft arrived at Mars, a gargantuan dust storm engulfed the entire planet. Not much was known about Mars at the time. Scientists saw a set of odd circular shapes poking through the dust, but couldn't figure out what they were until storm settled. Then the scientists realized these circles were the tops of gigantic dormant volcanoes.

Global Red Planet dust storms are rare — there were others in 2001 and in 2007 — but local dust storms pop up frequently. The causes of global storms are still unclear, Smith said, although these tempests tend to happen during summer in the planet's southern hemisphere. The 2007 storm hit while the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were on the Martian surface. The rovers hunkered down and took pictures of the darkening sky.

Smith said a person standing on the planet's surface would have trouble seeing — how much trouble is unclear, but it would be darker. The grinding sand would also get into everything: spacesuits, habitats,  rovers and other equipment, Smith said.

"The dust is electrostatic, like foam peanuts," Smith said, adding that the 1-micron size of sand particles "is so small that it coats everything."

But the wind, even at 60 mph (97 km/hr), would seem more like a breeze, because the density of Martian air is only 1 percent that of Earth. With an understanding that wind force is a function of atmospheric density as well as velocity, calculations show the speed of a 60-mph storm on Mars would feel more like 6 mph (9.6 km/hr), Smith said.

"It's not blowing people over, but these are dramatic events and they would have real-world consequences," he said.

NASA's entire fleet of Mars spacecraft monitors dust storms, particularly in visible wavelengths and thermal wavelengths (which shows the density). The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is used for most observations.

In the past decade, MRO's Mars Climate Sounder has provided extensive information about the appearance of different layers of the atmosphere during dust storms, Smith said. Results indicate the density varies by altitude, making the storms even more complex than they look.

"The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott and based on the book by Andy Weir, opens in theaters nationwide on Oct. 2.

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Copyright 2015, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome
Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
FREE Newsletters
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.




Save for later


Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items