Could static electricity damage rovers on Mars?

The friction of dust grains on Mars must probably produce electrical discharges. Is there a risk for robots exploring the planet? That static electricity wouldn’t harm them, scientists say.

Could static electricity likely generated on Mars endanger rovers exploring the Red Planet? There’s nothing to worry about, scientists say in a study published in Icaruspresented on February 19, 2021 by the University of Oregon discovered by Universe Today.

These authors are interested in triboelectricity, which is the electricity produced by the friction of two bodies (one with a positive charge and the other with a negative charge). ” Given their ubiquity on Earth, triboelectric processes are also likely to operate in other planetary environments rich in dust and sand, such as Mars, Titan, and possibly a number of exoplanets. ‘ the researchers recalled.

Regarding Mars, the phenomenon has been studied for several decades. ” Many experiments in the laboratory since the Viking lander era [ndlr : programme spatial de la Nasa, incluant deux sondes lancées en 1975] reported that frictional interactions between analogues of Martian dust grains can catalyze electrostatic processes write these scientists. This work has led to the suspicion that dust swirls and storms on Mars could be the cause of complex electrostatic phenomena. The question arises as to whether this static electricity could potentially damage robots or even the equipment of a manned mission.

Good news for perseverance and curiosity

According to the conclusions of the authors of the study published in Icarus, the friction of dust particles on Mars must produce electrical discharges on the surface and in the star’s atmosphere, but these sparks must be fairly small. Therefore, it seems unlikely that this friction could cause large electrical storms that would harm rovers and humans. Good news for curiosity and perseverance – the rover NASA has just landed on Mars.

The phenomenon is not easy to study because, as these scientists point out: “ No in situ electrostatic measurements have been made on the Martian surface to confirm this phenomenon “. The various experiments were carried out in the laboratory, generating discharges and sparks in simulations of Martian dust (with comparable materials). However, this work had a limit,” the fact that the analogous materials could come into contact with surfaces that would not be expected on the surface of Mars “. In other words, the moving particles came into contact with the walls of the enclosures during these tests. In such a device, it was still possible for the contact with the walls to generate charges.

For further

To circumvent this problem, the authors used a glass tube the size of a water bottle (about 10 cm in diameter and 20 cm in height). In this container they moved volcanic ash, similar to Martian dust. The collisions between particles have been reproduced at the speed one would expect from a Martian wind, with the particles far from the walls. They found that electrical discharges on Mars should be fairly weak because the properties of the Martian atmosphere are not ideal for storing charge. The researchers went one step further and introduced the particles with foreign surfaces. Although it could generate sparks there too, they concluded that the impact shouldn’t affect the mechanical functions of the rovers.

Jezero Crater, where Perseverance landed, is known to experience regular dust storms. For these authors, the presence of the rover could be interesting to try to observe (in a rudimentary way) electrostatic phenomena.

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