WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Tornadoes happen on other planets too

Posted February 24, 2012

The Triangle is no stranger to the destructive power of tornadoes. Similar phenomenon appear on other planets as well. Planets with sufficient atmosphere and energy can produce rotational weather patterns but on an even grander scale.

Dust devils have been witnessed on Mars both from orbiting satellites and at ground level by the rovers which explore the red planet.
Scientists think that these twisters can reach sizes many times larger than those on Earth due to the atmospheric differences between the two planets.

Dust devils form on Mars the same way they do on Earth, even in the thin Martian atmosphere. The sun heats the ground causing lighter air near the surface to rise through cooler denser air above sustaining a vertical circulation. If sufficient wind blows horizontally through that vertical circulation, that circulation can become horizontal creating a very well defined and very powerful dust devil.

The sand trapped in the dust devil poses a hazard to humans and spacecraft on Mars. NASA's Mars rovers have been challenged by dust deposited on their solar panels only to be nearly swept clean a few days later by a well placed wind. The Curiosity rover planned for landing in August will be imune to dust related power concerns thanks to the nuclear power supply on board but still may be pelted by sand during the occasional dust storm.

The dust and sand not only impacts rovers and anything or anyone else in the way, a real concern of scientists and engineers working towards the goal of human mission to Mars. That dust becomes electrically charged to the point of "arcing to your spacesuit or vehicle, and creating electromagnetic interference," even in Mars' thin atmosphere according to William M. Farrell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Jupiter's surface is spotted with storms but the best known is the Great Red Spot, big enough to swallow up several Earths and working something like a hurricane on Earth. Unlike Earth, the Great Red Spot never makes landfall so it has been rotating (counter clockwise) for 175+ years. Cloud tops in the spot extend another 5 miles above neighboring ones and wind speeds exceed those of Earthly hurricanes. The spot is visible with a moderate sized backyard telescope in the right viewing conditions.

In 2004, researchers spotted a storm near Saturn's equator the size of the continental United States. Dubbed the "Dragon Storm" for its spiraling shape, the thunderstorm was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini probe. Neptune features a pair of large cyclones. One even looks a lot like an eyeball.

Our sun has its own version of a tornado, though the cause is different. Last week the Solar Dynamic Observatory, a probe studying our sun's atmosphere with instruments that monitor multiple wavelengths simultaneously, celebrated its second anniversary by providing views of a previously unseen sight.

Incredible images of "tornado-like" eruptions of plasma over 30 hours across the sun's surface. Cooler plasma slid back and forth by competing magnetic forces causing a rotational effect captured by SDO's cameras. The resulting fountain like sprays of super hot plasma are actually guided by the magnetic field lines up and outward. Images like this were not possible before SDO a provided a view into solar activity which surprised scientists.

To learn more about wild weather in our solar system, join local NASA Ambassador Dr. Mike Malaska on March 8 for "Extreme Storm on Saturn"
at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. Malaska's talk will be followed by a showing of the National Geographic planetarium show "Wildest Weather in the Solar System" which he contributed to. {{a href="external_link-10711273"}}Free tickets may be reserved on the Morehead website.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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  • anderaiken Feb 26, 2012

    I'm sure the cause of them is global warming, It's probably because Al Gore isn't there to save the day and write junk science books.