Mars Dust Storm May Affect NASA Rovers

A large Mars dust storm is currently being tracked by a NASA spacecraft. The storm has spawned changes in the Red Planet’s atmosphere that have been felt by both NASA rovers currently working on the planet’s surface.

The Mars dust storm was initially spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) two weeks ago and has been monitored closely ever since, reports Yahoo! News.

The agency’s Mars rover Opportunity has noticed a slight drop in atmospheric clarity from the storm. NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, has been able to track a drop in air pressure and increased nighttime temperatures, because of its built-in weather station.

NASA’s chief Mars scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Rich Zurek, stated:

“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 have grown into global dust hazes.”

The Mars dust storm is being monitored by both rovers, as well as the MRO, which boasts a Mars Color Imager. The current storm is absorbing sunlight instead of reflecting it. This is leading to a warming effect 16 miles above the planet’s surface, which is seen by the MRO.

The last major Mars dust storms were seen in 2001 and 2007, but not in other years. Dust storms are usually only seen during the Red Planet’s spring season, because they follow a seasonal pattern, notes Discovery News. The season began a few weeks ago for the planet’s southern hemisphere. Zurek stated:

“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.”

A global dust storm on the Red Planet could cause problems for both NASA rovers currently working on the surface. If the dust storm goes global, Opportunity may see some power depletion, because of dust settling on its solar panels.

Curiosity would likely just experience some haze in the photos it takes of nearby terrain from the Mars dust storm. The rover, which landed on Mars on August 5, is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, making it unaffected by dust storms.