NASA’s Curiosity rover captures images of Martian dust storm

Rodiano Bonacci
Giugno 24, 2018

In an update on the conditions prevailing on Mars, NASA has announced that the massive dust storm, which has been raging on the red planet for almost 20 Earth days, has grown bigger than one could possibly imagine.

However, another rover, the nuclear-powered Curiosity, is on the opposite side of the planet from Opportunity and sending pictures back that reveal the dust storm's darkening effects on Mars.

A key question for scientists is why some dust storms on Mars become planet-enshrouding events and last months, while others fade away in a week.

"Each observation of these large storms brings us closer to being able to model these events - and maybe, someday, being able to forecast them", said Rich Zurek, chief scientist for the Mars Program Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said the current dust storm is bigger than the size of North America and Russian Federation combined.

Curiosity, he pointed out, plus a fleet of spacecraft in the orbit of Mars, will allow scientists for the first time to collect a wealth of dust information both from the surface and from space.

Opportunity has been on Mars since 2004 and lost contact for a few days during another global dust storm in 2007 due to the darkened skies. The storm's light-blocking factor, or "tau", has grown to over 8.0 above Gale Crater (where Curiosity is now rovering about) - the highest value the bot has ever recorded during its mission. NASA says the atmospheric haze has reached a "tau" rating of 8.0.

NASA reports that dust is rapidly and steadily settling down on Curiosity. Some of the strongest Martian dust storms can stay active for weeks or months. NASA describes it as more diffuse and patchy than other massive storms that completely obscured the planet's surface. The engineers at NASA have said the vehicle's instruments are not at risk, but its cameras might require more exposure time due to low lighting and dust blowing toward its optics. This sun-obstructing wall of haze is about six to eight times thicker than normal for this time of season. As the atmosphere warms, winds generated at different locations mobilize dust particles the size of talcum powder grains, according to NASA.

But researchers hope data gathered on the current dust storm will help predict similar events in the future. Dust clouds have been spotted up to 60 kilometers (40 miles) high. Earth's gravitational pull is nearly double that of Mars, which helps settle the dust.

Storms are common in the spring and summer on Mars, but sometimes they remain small and last only a week. The other two orbiters can measure the amount of dust and study how the upper atmosphere behaves. Vegetation also binds the soil, preventing particles from getting airborne, and rain washes whatever gets in the atmosphere back down.

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