Arizona State scientists keep an eye on Martian dust storm

July 11, 2007
Arizona State scientists keep an eye on Martian dust storm
The map shows the atmosphere's opacity at an infrared wavelength of 9 micrometers. The scale bar's values run from nearly clear (0.05) to roughly a two-thirds reduction in sunlight (0.40).Image credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona State University

Scientists at Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Center are using the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter to monitor a large dust storm on the Red Planet. The instrument, a multi-wavelength camera sensitive to five visible wavelengths and 10 infrared ones, is providing Mars scientists and spacecraft controllers with global maps that track how much atmospheric dust is obscuring the planet.

The dust storm, which erupted during the last week of June 2007, is affecting operations for all five spacecraft operating at Mars. The fleet includes two NASA rovers on the ground (Spirit and Opportunity), plus three orbiters, two of which belong to NASA (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and one to the European Space Agency (Mars Express).

Beginning in Mars' heavily cratered southern highlands, the dust storm took roughly a week to grow large enough to encircle the planet. Dust has now drifted into the northern hemisphere as well.

"This is the favorable time of the Martian year for dust storms," says Joshua Bandfield, research associate at the Mars Space Flight Facility. The facility is part of the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"It's summer in the southern hemisphere," he says, "That's when Mars lies closest to the sun and solar heating is greatest."

Bandfield adds, "We can watch weather fronts spreading and kicking up dust in a big way." He explains that as winds sweep dust into the atmosphere, the atmosphere becomes warmer. This adds to the storm's power, helping it to pick up more dust. But the process has a built-in limitation, he says. "When the dust becomes thick enough, it reflects more sunlight from the atmosphere, allowing the air near the surface to cool."

As seen from orbit, the dust storm has the effect of veiling surface features – or even concealing them completely, which hasn't happened yet in this event. "This storm isn't as big or severe as the one in 2001," Bandfield says. "THEMIS and other orbiters can still see the surface, despite the continuing dust activity."

From the ground, the dust in the air has cut the amount of sunlight reaching the rovers' solar panels and reducing their electrical power. "If you were standing there, you'd see the sky looking tawny with haze," explains Bandfield. "The sun would appear as a sharp-edged disk, but the light level would be noticeably lower than what you would see under a totally clear sky."

Luckily, say scientists, summer is a time when the rovers can best survive under reduced power. If the storm had struck during local winter, the rovers might not get enough power during the day to stay alive through the cold Martian night.

How long will this storm last" No one knows for sure, but Bandfield notes its effects won't disappear as quickly as the storm erupted. "Mars," he says, "will remain dusty for at least a couple months more."

Source: Arizona State University

Explore further: Curiosity Mars rover tracks sunspots

Related Stories

Curiosity Mars rover tracks sunspots

July 13, 2015

While busily investigating bedrock types on Mars' Mount Sharp and preparing for a drill test, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has also been looking up frequently to monitor sunspots on the face of the sun that is turned away ...

MAVEN results find Mars behaving like a rock star

June 22, 2015

If planets had personalities, Mars would be a rock star according to recent preliminary results from NASA's MAVEN spacecraft. Mars sports a "Mohawk" of escaping atmospheric particles at its poles, "wears" a layer of metal ...

Image: The effect of the winds of Mars

June 2, 2015

Here on Earth, we are used to the wind shaping our environment over time, forming smooth, sculpted rocks and rippling dunes. In this way, Mars is more similar to Earth than you might expect.

What is lunar regolith?

May 29, 2015

When you're walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you've tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces ...

What makes Mars sunsets different from Earth's?

May 19, 2015

Even robots can't tear their eyes from a beautiful sunset. NASA's Mars Curiosity rover pointed its high resolution mast camera at the setting sun to capture this 4-image sequence on April 15 at the conclusion of the mission's ...

Recommended for you

First detection of lithium from an exploding star

July 29, 2015

The chemical element lithium has been found for the first time in material ejected by a nova. Observations of Nova Centauri 2013 made using telescopes at ESO's La Silla Observatory, and near Santiago in Chile, help to explain ...

Dense star clusters shown to be binary black hole factories

July 29, 2015

The coalescence of two black holes—a very violent and exotic event—is one of the most sought-after observations of modern astronomy. But, as these mergers emit no light of any kind, finding such elusive events has been ...

New names and insights at Ceres

July 29, 2015

Colorful new maps of Ceres, based on data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft, showcase a diverse topography, with height differences between crater bottoms and mountain peaks as great as 9 miles (15 kilometers).

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.