Image: A transient large dust storm on Mars, observed with NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, showing the planet before, during, and after a potential “rocket dust storm.”  Enlarge

Scientists have modeled the internal workings of lightning-filled “rocket dust storms” on Mars that rise at speeds 100 times faster than ordinary storms and inject dust high into the Martian atmosphere.

The Red Planet is a very dry and dusty place, with global storms that sometimes obscure the entire surface. Satellites orbiting Mars have seen persistent dust layers reaching very high altitudes, as much as 30 to 50 km above the ground, though scientists are at a loss to explain exactly how the dust got there.

Using a high-resolution model, researchers have shown that a thick blob-like dust pocket inside a storm may become heated by the sun, causing the surrounding atmosphere to warm quickly. Because hot air rises, these areas will shoot skyward super fast, much like a rocket launching into space, hence “rocket dust storms.”

“The vertical transport was so strong we want to come up with a kind of spectacular name, to give an idea of the very powerful rise,” said planetary scientist Aymeric Spiga from the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in Paris, France, who is lead author on a paper describing the phenomena in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on Jan. 14.

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