November 25th, 2012 by James Ayre
For the first time since the 1970’s NASA is able to track an enormous Martian dust storm using both ground and satellite weather stations. Rovers Curiosity and Opportunity have been monitoring the changing weather conditions on the ground, while NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been from orbit.
The massive dust storm was first seen by the MRO on November 10th and has been in continuous observation since then. And the Mars rover Opportunity has noticed a minor drop in atmospheric clarity because of the storm. Mars rover Curiosity has also been monitoring the storm with its built-in weather station, and has “seen a drop in air pressure and slightly increased nighttime temperatures halfway around the planet from Opportunity,” according to NASA officials.
“This is now a regional dust storm,” Rich Zurek, NASA’s chief Mars scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement Wednesday (Nov. 21). “It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze and it is in a part of the planet were some regional storms have grown into global dust hazes.”
NASA is using its combined MRO and Curiosity observations to generate a more complete image of a Martian dust storm than has been possibly before.. “The Spain-built Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on Curiosity gives scientists a real-time look at conditions over the rover’s position inside Gale Crater.”
“For the first time since the Viking missions of the 1970s, we are studying a regional dust storm both from orbit and with a weather station on the surface,” Zurek said.
“Because the dust from the current storm is absorbing sunlight instead of reflecting it, a warming effect 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the Martian tempest has been seen by MRO. The effect, first recorded by MRO’s Mars Climate Sounder on Nov. 16, has led to a temperature increase of 45 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) so far.”
The warmer temperatures are not just in the Martian south though, “the circulation of the Martian atmosphere has also led to a hot spot in the planet’s northern polar regions. The temperature on Mars is typically about minus 80 degrees F (minus 60 degrees C), but can vary depending on location and the Martian season.”
“Regional dust storms on Mars were observed in 2001 and 2007, but not between those years or in the time since. The Martian year lasts two Earth years, with major dust storm events following a seasonal pattern. Dust storm season on Mars began a few weeks ago as the Martian spring began in the planet’s southern hemisphere, NASA officials said.”
“One thing we want to learn is why do some Martian dust storm get to this size and stop growing, while others this size keep growing and go global,” Zurek said.
If the storm does become global, the dust that it deposits will have an effect on the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. It could potentially limit the amount of sunlight reaching Opportunity’s solar panels (Opportunity has already greatly outlasted its projected lifespan and is in an extended mission now). Opportunity has been on Mars since 2004, exploring the plains of Meridiani Planum.
“NASA’s newer Mars rover Curiosity, meanwhile, would likely see increased haze in its photos of nearby terrain, as well as an above normal air temperature. The 1-ton Curiosity rover landed on Mars on Aug. 5 and is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that is unaffected by dust storms.”
Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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