These new views of Mars, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, show that the entire planet is now engulfed in the dust storm that began in late May. And while orbiters are studying the storm to understand it better, it could spell trouble for the rovers on its surface.
Storms like these occur every six to eight Earth years, according to a NASA release. The most recent one began as a smaller storm, first observed on 30 May which forced the Opportunity rover to enter hibernation mode in early June. By 20th June, the storm encircled the planet.
“It’s exciting because it’s the strongest dust storm we’ve EVER seen on Mars,” Tanya Harrison, director of Arizona State University’s NewSpace Initiative told Gizmodo via Twitter direct message. “It’s worrisome for Opportunity because she’s not getting enough sunlight to keep her batteries charged, but thermal models tell us temperature is on our side.”
Opportunity will remain asleep until the dust settles, probably some time in September, when scientists will try to wake it up. The main concern is whether the solar-powered rover can survive the cold without power to keep warm, though the thick dust may absorb heat and prevent Opportunity from feeling the worst of the frigid temperature. Harrison said that scientists are optimistic.
Meanwhile, other experiments are working to understand the tempest—NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter is tracking the planet’s temperature and atmospheric composition to better study it, according to that release. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter takes colour photos of the atmosphere and measures temperature, while its MAVEN orbiter is studying how the storm affects the top of the Martian atmosphere, above the dust. They want to know how small storms turn into planet-wide events.
And 5,000 miles away from Opportunity, the Curiosity rover is in less danger. It is nuclear powered, so it need not hibernate. It is attempting to measure the properties of the dust particles while it continues drilling into rock, but as we reported, the dust could possibly harm its cameras.
Scientists are excited to study the storm to learn about our red neighbour. “The storm gives us the chance to better understand how these storms grow from regional to planet-encircling, and what kind of effects they have on the albedo patterns [how the planet reflects sunlight] on the surface.” [NASA]