A dust storm is raging across the entire planet of Mars, and even as spacecraft on the ground – specifically, the Opportunity rover – are out of commission, satellites above the surface are capturing stunning images.
As Space.com reports, Martian dust storms are unlike anything even remotely conceivable here on Earth. They envelop the entire planet, and they last for months. Down on the Martian surface, the Opportunity rover has gone quiet, thanks to dust covering its solar panels and blocking out the sunlight that it relies on for power. But hundreds of miles above the surface, several man-made satellites are circling the Red Planet, continuing to send photos and data back to Earth.
One such satellite, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), has sent back an especially intriguing series of images. The image below shows the planet at two points in its recent history. The image on the left, from May 2018, shows valleys, craters, and other geological features. The image on the right, from July 2018, shows the entire planet engulfed in dust.
Michael Smith, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement that this dust storm is unprecedented in the study of the planet.
“This is one of the largest weather events that we’ve seen on Mars. Having another example of a dust storm really helps us to understand what’s going on.”
Down on the Martian ground, while Opportunity has gone into hibernation, its cousin Curiosity, which uses nuclear energy and isn’t bothered by the dust storm, is still hard at work. The craft is studying the dust and other particulates kicked up by the storm. It’s also looking into the relationship between dust storms and so-called “atmospheric tides,” which are pressure waves that travel widely throughout the planet’s air. Meanwhile, Curiosity’s planned mission to drill a hole into a rock continues, says Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada.
“We’re working double-duty right now. Our newly recommissioned drill is acquiring a fresh rock sample. But we are also using instruments to study how the dust storm evolves.”
As for Opportunity, researchers are hoping, with fingers crossed, that the dust storm is merely a setback in the craft’s life and not the end of it. According to a Space.com report from last week, until the dust storm ends – which could be months from now – commanders won’t know if the craft is dead or has simply “gone to sleep.” Still, commanders are hopeful, says Commander John Callas.
“We should be able to ride out this storm. We’re concerned, but we’re hopeful that the storm will clear and the rover will begin to communicate to us.”