Jun 20, 2018

A dust storm has engulfed Mars, shrouding NASA's rovers

A self-portrait taken by NASA's Curiosity rover taken on June 15, 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On May 30, a dust storm was spotted forming on Mars. It's now officially gone global, blanketing NASA's rovers in dust.

Why this matters: The dust storm is unusually severe, and could knock out Mars' 15-year-old Opportunity rover for good, given the dust is so thick that it isn't allowing sunlight in to charge its batteries. At Opportunity's location, in fact, day has effectively turned into night.

  • The better-known Curiosity rover; however, is nuclear-powered, and is operating normally, according to NASA.

The scope: According to a NASA statement, the storm became a "planet-encircling" dust storm on Tuesday, with dust levels spiking at Gale Crater, where the Curiosity rover is located.

  • The Opportunity rover has not been heard from since June 10, though mission scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California remain hopeful that the intrepid spacecraft will come out of its slumber and successfully communicate.
  • "Regardless, the project doesn’t expect to hear back from Opportunity until the skies begin to clear over the rover. That doesn’t stop them from listening for the rover every day," NASA said.

Will Opportunity survive? According to NASA, scientists expect Opportunity to stay warm enough, despite the lack of incoming sunlight, that it could survive the long period without battery charging. However, this is space exploration, so there are no guarantees.

The puzzle: Scientists are using this storm as an opportunity to study how Mars' atmosphere works, and how to tell when what appears to be a small dust storm is about to go global.

Timing: Right now, scientists have limited predictability of Martian weather.

  • "We don't have any good idea," says Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, speaking specifically about what causes some dust storms to stay localized while others circle the red planet, lingering for months at a time.
  • The ongoing dust storm is similar to one observed by Viking I in 1977, NASA said, but is "more diffuse and patchy" than other global dust events seen in 1971-1972 and 2001.

The bottom line: Scientists are watching, waiting, and hoping that they will both gather crucial data about how Mars' atmosphere functions, and hear back from Opportunity soon.

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