NASA Orbiter Tracks Back-to-Back Massive Dust Storms On Mars

Posted: Mar 11 2017, 5:08am CST | by , Updated: Mar 11 2017, 5:16am CST, in News | Latest Science News

NASA Orbiter Tracks Back-to-Back Massive Dust Storms on Mars Surface
This image is a global map of Mars with atmospheric changes from Feb. 18, 2017, through March 6, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

These regional Martian storms could grow and explode to sizes bigger than the United States

Dust storms occur frequently on Mars. These storms can form in a matter of few hours and engulf the entire planet within a few days. However, it is highly unlikely to spot back to back intense dust storms on Mars.

Recently NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has observed a regional dust storm swelling on Mars following closely the one that developed less than two weeks earlier and is now scattering. The images from orbiter's wide-angle Mars Color Imager (MARCI) show each storm is growing in the Acidalia area of northern Mars and could explode to a size bigger than the United States.

Based on years of data and observations, researchers believe that dust storms on Mars follow a specific pattern, which is in some ways quite predictable. These storms usually form during the southern spring and summer, when Mars is closest to the sun. It is now mid-summer over there.

“What's unusual is we're seeing a second one so soon after the first one,” said Mars meteorologist Bruce Cantor from Malin Space Science Systems which built and operates MARCI. “We've had orbiters watching weather patterns on Mars continuously for nearly two decades now, and many patterns are getting predictable, but just when we think we have Mars figured out, it throws us another surprise.”

Since regional storms can grow large and even encircle the entire planet, Mars orbiter is keeping a close on their progression. The last time a planet-encircling storm occurred on Mars was in 2007.

Researchers suggest that only the first of these back-to-back storms fits into the annual pattern of storm identified by Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) instrument and MARCI. Although, the other storm is surprising researchers with its unusual timing, it will add to their understanding of Martian dust storms and help them make accurate predictions. More accurate predictions of dust storms on Mars would be a boon for future astronauts there.

“We hope for a chance to learn more about how dust storms become global, if that were to happen,” said David Kass, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California. "Even if it does not become a global storm, the temperature effects due to thin dust hazes will last for several weeks.”

Planet-encircling or the global dust storms occur once in about three Martian years on average. So, if the current dust storms become a global one, it could potentially damage rovers on Martian surface.

During the 2007 global dust storm on Mars, both of the rovers then operating on the planet - Spirit and Opportunity - were put into a power-saving mode for more than a week. Since Feb. 25 this year, the atmosphere over Opportunity has become dustier and some of the dust is even falling into the solar panels. However, same winds that catapult Martian dust into the atmosphere can also clear some of the dust accumulating over the rovers.

“Before the first regional dust storm, the solar panels were cleaner than they were during the last four Martian summers, so the panels generated more energy," said Jennifer Herman, JPL rover-power engineer. "It remains to be seen whether the outcome of these storms will be a cleaner or dirtier Opportunity. We have seen both results from dust storms in the past."

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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