Scientists believe one of the biggest problems for the manned missions to Mars will be the extra-fine dust that coats the planet. The dust on Mars is probably 50 times finer than on Earth and we don't really know what the health effects might be.
When a manned mission arrives at Mars, a goal President George W. Bush set for NASA, dust could coat equipment like electrostatic spray paint, short out electronics in a spacesuit, or even zap a craft and prevent astronauts from coming home. Meantime, inhaling the tiny particles will have potential health consequences that are unknown today.
"If you walk through, pick up or simply touch the dust, it would gather charge and stick to you. We've already seen this on the rovers' wheels," said Geoffrey Landis, a physicist with the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. "Things get even more interesting when winds come by and separate the charge."
Landis explained an astronaut would be a walking electric field and attract even more dust to the spacesuit. The theoretical phenomenon is known as the triboelectric effect and is similar to the current generated while walking across a carpet floor during the winter, when the air is extremely dry and can't soak up static charge well.
"As you walk, you scrape off electrons in the carpet and into your body. When you reach for the door's handle, those electrons jump and create an arc," he said. Such a zap of electricity during a Mars surface mission could damage sensitive electronics in a spacesuit or aboard a landing vehicle unless precautions were taken, he explained..