Saturday, June 23, 2018

Curiosity Snaps Photos of Thickening Haze as Martian Dust Storm Goes Global

A self-portrait by NASA’s Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover’s location in Gale Crater. A drill hole can be seen in the rock to the left of the rover at a target site called “Duluth.” Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has captured stunning photos of a sunlight-blocking haze as it thickens during the ongoing dust storm. The storm has grown in size and is now officially classified by NASA as a global dust event.

Images acquired by Curiosity earlier this month (June 2018) show the Martian sky getting gradually hazier. The rover, studying potentially habitable conditions on the Red Planet, is currently in the Gale Crater where recent measurements show that the level of atmospheric opacity (the so-called tau level) was at a value of 8.0. It is the highest tau level the Curiosity rover has ever recorded.

NASA reports that the haze is about six to eight times thicker than normal for this time of the season. The agency noted that the level of dust in the area where Curiosity operates, more than doubled over the weekend of June 16-17 alone.

The current dust storm has been referred to by the space agency as “planet-encircling.” This is due to the fact that this storm covers much of Mars in contrary to common Martian dust storms that are usually limited to local areas. According to Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, if such conditions were to occur on Earth, it would be bigger than North America and Russia combined.

The Mars Color Imager (MARCI) instrument on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has provided a global view of the growing dust storm. The images show that it started in the beginning of June as a major regional-scale atmospheric event and began expanding along the northern hemisphere from eastern Tharsis / Elysium regions around June 4. By June 10, the storm was covering an area greater than 11.5 million square miles (30 million square kilometers).

Curiosity’s engineers say that the storm poses little risk to the mission’s operations and should not affect the rover’s instruments.

“The largest impact is to the rover’s cameras, which require extra exposure time due to the low lighting. The rover already routinely points its Mastcam down at the ground after each use to reduce the amount of dust blowing at its optics,” NASA stated via an agency-issued release.

However, while Curiosity is nuclear-powered and therefore not dependent on solar energy, NASA’s other operational rover on Mars, Opportunity, is powered by Sunlight now blocked by the thickening haze.

Last week, NASA disclosed that it lost contact with the “Oppy” rover, adding that the engineers do not expect to hear back from the robot until the skies begin to clear above it. Last measurements of the tau level made by this rover indicated the value of almost 11.0.

NASA scientists hope that Curiosity, which will be operating during the global dust storm, can collect valuable data that could improve our understanding of these phenomena, which are unique on Earth – but common on the Red Planet. In particular, the researchers are interested in finding out why do some Martian dust storms last for months and grow massive, while others stay small and last only a week.

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