Rovers keeping an eye on Martian dust storm

Mosaic image showing the dust storm in the southern hemisphere of Mars as of November 18, 2012. The locations of the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers are also marked.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Malin Space Science Systems

A large seasonal dust storm has been growing in the southern hemisphere of Mars over the last couple of weeks, and both rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, have been monitoring its extent and progress, as well as Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.

So far the storm has been regional and a safe distance away from both rovers, but scientists want to keep an eye on it, as such storms can sometimes become global.

As of now, the rovers aren’t in any danger, but have been watching the skies become more dusty even at their locations to the northwest and northeast of the storm. If the storm were to spread to their locations, Opportunity would be more at risk since it uses solar panels for its energy supply. Curiosity, however, is nuclear-powered, using a radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

Curiosity has measured a decrease in air pressure and a slight rise in overnight low temperatures. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also detected a temperature increase of approximately 25˚ C (45˚ F) about 25 kilometres (16 miles) above the storm.

According to said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “This is now a regional dust storm. It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze, and it is in a part of the planet where some regional storms in the past have grown into global dust hazes. 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.”

So while there seems to be little cause for concern, it is an excellent opportunity to study a uniquely Martian phenomenon from both the ground and orbit. As Zurek adds, “One thing we want to learn is why do some Martian dust storms get to this size and stop growing, while others this size keep growing and go global.”

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