Huge planet-wide dust storm on Mars knocks out NASA’s ‘Opportunity’ rover – scientists worried

Dust storm is now on the verge of circumnavigating the entire planet

Mars rover Opportunity is in trouble.

NASA engineers attempted to contact Opportunity yesterday, June 12th, but did not hear back from the nearly 15-year old rover. The problem: A huge dust storm is blanketing Perseverance Valley where Opportunity has been working. This sequence of images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter shows the progression of the storm:

The huge dust cloud is highlighted in red. Soon after it appeared on May 31st, it swirled south to envelope Opportunity. Right now, the dust is so thick in Perseverance Valley, day has been turned into night. The solar powered rover is being deprived of the sunlight it needs to charge its batteries.

NASA is now operating under the assumption that the charge in Opportunity’s batteries has dipped below 24 volts and the rover has entered low power fault mode, a condition where all subsystems, except a mission clock, are turned off. The rover’s mission clock is programmed to wake Opportunity at intervals so it can check power levels. If the batteries don’t have enough charge, the rover will put itself back to sleep again.

In a teleconference today, NASA planners expressed optimism that Opportunity can weather this storm and wake up again after the skies clear. It may take days or weeks for this to occur, however.

This is a dust storm of rare size. It is now on the verge of circumnavigating the entire globe, overlying more than a quarter of Mars’ land area. It is so large, astronomers can photograph it using amateur telescopes. Indeed, Joseph Rueck saw the storm starting on May 31st using his backyard telescope in Seastian, Florida.

via NASA

The last time there was such a planet wide dust storm was in 2001, as seen by this Hubble Space Telescope image:

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June 13, 2018 1:38 pm

Cosmic rays

June 13, 2018 1:41 pm

I wonder what triggered that?

Perhaps somebody could ask a climate expert

Reply to  TomO
June 13, 2018 2:00 pm

The CO2 from the planet, which is quite a lot. It has a partial pressure bigger than on Earth and if you adjust for gravity, you find out that catastrophic warming occurs there /sarc

Reply to  Adrian Roman
June 13, 2018 2:47 pm

Not just bigger, but much bigger and should have the equivalent GHG effect of many thousands of ppm on Earth.

Bob Burban
Reply to  Adrian Roman
June 13, 2018 5:55 pm

~96% CO2 in the Martian atmosphere (Wikipedia)

Reply to  Bob Burban
June 14, 2018 2:29 am

% of what. (other gasses)

Krudd Gillard of the Commondebt of Australia
Reply to  TomO
June 13, 2018 8:26 pm

Heap big CO2, bigger bigger, much danger, man cause it, man bad, make tax, big big tax, CO2 go away with strong magic…

Craig Happer
June 13, 2018 1:45 pm

Fake news, solar power is the answer to everything and can never fail.

Reply to  Craig Happer
June 13, 2018 5:27 pm

Also, wind power — a dust storm HAS to have wind, and so there’s your power source. Where are the wind turbines on this thing? — did the engineers overlook this most obvious of power sources? /sarc

Jimmy Haigh
June 13, 2018 1:50 pm

Trump’s fault…

Reply to  Jimmy Haigh
June 14, 2018 2:44 am

I was going to say hacked by the Russians, but they’re probably too busy hacking the World Cup today. Or something.

Bloke down the pub
June 13, 2018 1:53 pm

Well Opportunity is just a glorified suv so it was bound to affect the weather sooner or later.

Gordon Dressler
Reply to  Bloke down the pub
June 14, 2018 8:09 am

. . . except that it is solar PV powered and does not use fossil fuels.

Kalifornia Kook
Reply to  Gordon Dressler
June 16, 2018 9:09 am

Gordon, it’s man made, so it will destroy Mars’ climate, and eventually Mars will become uninhabitable.

Stephen Wilde
June 13, 2018 1:53 pm

Dust storms on Mars arise when temperature imbalances arise as a result of uneven surface heating such that convection needs to return atmospheric gases back to the surface faster (stronger winds raising more dust) so as to equalize energy in from space with energy out to space and thereby maintain atmospheric hydrostatic equilibrium.
It is an example of how convective vigor adjusts to neutralize radiative imbalances on a dry planet.
On Earth, variations in the speed of the water cycle assist the process.
Such storms are evidence that atmospheric mass is what raises the surface temperature above that predicted by the S-B equation and not radiative gases.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Stephen Wilde
June 13, 2018 9:35 pm

Mars Global Dust Storms may be the result of Mars orbit-spin coupling.
See my post at 9:32 pm.

Reply to  Stephen Wilde
June 14, 2018 10:05 am

The convection combined with the relatively low gravity on Mars will account for a good portion of the suspended particulates.

Gordon Dressler
Reply to  Stephen Wilde
June 14, 2018 2:11 pm

SW, you posted: “Such storms are evidence that atmospheric mass is what raises the surface temperature above that predicted by the S-B equation.”

So, logically I then have to ask: “What changed the Martian atmospheric mass, and by how much, to account for the difference seen in the article’s images of Mars on June 26, 2001 and September 4, 2001, or—most recently between, say, April 30 and May 31, 2018?

Or did the Sun’s irradiance at Mars suddenly flare up greatly and I just didn’t hear about it?

James Beaver
Reply to  Gordon Dressler
June 14, 2018 8:53 pm

Microbe flatulence?

Mark of OK
June 13, 2018 2:02 pm

No doubt someone will blame the man made Opportunity as the culprit for this dust storm.
If man can warm up the moon, certainly man can create a dust storm on Mars.

June 13, 2018 2:09 pm

The movie The Martian starts out with a dust storm. I thought the atmosphere on Mars was really thin. How can thin air pick up dust? It must be moving really fast.

Reply to  Goggles
June 13, 2018 3:43 pm

There’s speculation of an electrostatic effect similar to that seen to raise anomalous dust storms on the moon from time to time.

Bloke down the pub
Reply to  Goggles
June 14, 2018 3:53 am

Well the gravity holding the dust down is a lot weaker than on Earth for starters. While I enjoyed watching the Martian, the one major flaw (also acknowledged by the producers) was that the atmosphere on Mars would not be able to blow over the lander because it is too thin.

Reply to  Bloke down the pub
June 14, 2018 10:14 am

And it certainly wouldn’t have been howling and rattling the structures. Along with its tenuous nature comes the lack of ability to transmit sound as well.

BTW 5 gallon buckets of Martian soil wouldn’t have been very heavy either.

Reply to  Goggles
June 14, 2018 10:08 am

The gravity on Mars is about 3/8 that of Earth’s. This allows more particles to rise and remain suspended much more easily and for much longer than we are accustomed to here on Earth.

June 13, 2018 2:10 pm

Seastian, Florida….I’m pretty sure that Sebastian, Florida

….are we going to have to send someone up to wipe off the panels now

June 13, 2018 2:11 pm

Fine dust, i.e. not The Martian movie theatrics.

Reply to  ResourceGuy
June 13, 2018 2:40 pm

You mean Hollywood embellishes things!!?? Holy smoke Batman.

Steve O
June 13, 2018 3:13 pm

Maybe a future Rover could use a little windmill as a supplementary power source.

Reply to  Steve O
June 13, 2018 3:29 pm

Steve O
We would need the rotor bearings to be well-sealed, otherwise dust will penetrate. And that is a lo-o-ong way to send even an AI-run Service-Bot to change a couple of bearings . . . . . .


James Beaver
Reply to  Auto
June 14, 2018 8:58 pm

Permanent magnet magnetic suspension. No physical contact. It would need to be a 3-D lock on the rotor to resist thrust from either end.

June 13, 2018 3:41 pm

emigrants to Mars will have to take some windmills with them for electricity. (Think about all that FREE energy.) Good alternative for when the sun if blocked.

Reply to  sophocles
June 13, 2018 4:45 pm

The atmosphere is only about 1% as dense as the Earth’s so there’s not a lot of energy in the wind, regardless of how fast it’s blowing.

Richard Wakefield
Reply to  MarkW
June 13, 2018 5:20 pm

Hell, there;s not enough energy in our wind to power society.

Reply to  MarkW
June 13, 2018 6:13 pm

But gravity is @ 38%. Density is at 0.6%.

And (V)^3 … (for power calcs) means that the wind needs to be only moving 2.5 times as fast to do the same thing. Given the big temp swings and associated energy swings, high winds are expected.

(what am i doing wrong?)

Reply to  DonM
June 13, 2018 7:39 pm

I don’t know what you are doing wrong but cube root of 166 is 5.5 so wind speed required is 5.5 times that on earth for same power.

Reply to  acementhead
June 13, 2018 8:22 pm

Yeah but you guys are just counting the wind bit, The bits of dust in it add to the energy. It’s sustainable too (the life forms are too primitive to know any better). We just gotta figure out how to beam it back to Earth.

Reply to  philincalifornia
June 14, 2018 10:28 am

We would need a different type of blade to generate forces as wind turbines rely on dynamic lift for force not momentum transfer. What you are referring too would be more akin to a hydroelectric turbine….designed to be powered by sandblasting.
Good luck with longevity on that.

Reply to  rocketscientist
June 14, 2018 11:27 am

We’ll simply take the static charges off the dusties as they blow by … no mechanical needed.

Reply to  DonM
June 14, 2018 2:25 pm

O.K., I wrote it down and put it in the calculator instead of trying to do it in my head.

(0.38/0.006)^0.33333 = 4

(assuming that the dust laden density of the wind is 0.006 time earth wind).

Reply to  DonM
June 15, 2018 4:15 pm

Don M unfortunately your answer is still incorrect. The energy in a stream of fluid is 1/2 MV^2. The mass in a given volumn, the density, and the velocity is all that matter. Gravity does not come in to it at all.

We need to avoid giving the warmists the chance to call us stupid so we need to be right, all the time.

June 13, 2018 4:16 pm

Like an Andy Weir novel …

Richard Wakefield
June 13, 2018 5:16 pm

Must be from all the SUVs those Martians are driving around.

Wanna guess climate models havnt figured out why these happen?

Robert of Texas
June 13, 2018 5:30 pm

And this is why nuclear power (many different kinds of electric generators are available) should be used when sending probes away from the sun. Not only do you get consistent power, you get it day and night, and you get heat as well. They can last up to 20 years or more. You don’t lose power in a dust storm.

Reply to  Robert of Texas
June 14, 2018 6:29 am

Curiosity, nuclear powered, may have problems broadcasting through all that dust.

June 13, 2018 5:47 pm

Mars fights back against earthly human conquest. Humans may have conquered the moon but the Martians are not tolerating any of that kind of invasion. They see the destruction of the earth and moon. ATV tracks and the threat of Musk’s planned invasion. It’s worse than they thought!

Richard of NZ
Reply to  eyesonu
June 14, 2018 5:14 am

The chances of anything coming from Earth
Are a million to one he said.

But still, they come.

June 13, 2018 6:23 pm

Gonna take more than a world-wide dust storm to knock out Opportunity……you watch 🙂

Tom Abbott
Reply to  u.k.(us)
June 13, 2018 6:59 pm

Opportunity just keeps going and going. Amazing.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
June 13, 2018 7:02 pm

The little probe that could.

Especially remarkable since in general Mars has proved a tough nut to crack. Failures have been legion, from many causes.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
June 13, 2018 7:35 pm

Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.

Or a dusting.

Reid Smith
Reply to  Tom Abbott
June 14, 2018 1:26 pm

A tribute to American engineerig

June 13, 2018 7:29 pm

Seems like this always happens near opposition. Will ruin the ability of my 4″ sct to pick up any surface detail. Hope it ends soon.

Joel O'Bryan
June 13, 2018 9:32 pm

James Shirley at NASA/JPL-Pasadena has been modeling Martian Global Dust Storms for the last 14 years or so. He has come up with a hypothesis that the Martian GDS is based on spin-orbit momentum coupling.

One of his latest papers on the subject is here:

Numerical modeling of orbit-spin coupling accelerations in a Mars general circulation model: Implications for global dust storm activity
Michael A.Mischna, James H.Shirley
July 2017.
The pre-print Arvix copy is here:

Highlights of the paper:
– An orbit-spin coupling hypothesis may elucidate Mars dust storm activity.
– Intensified circulation observed in all past years with perihelion season storms.
– Enhanced surface stresses are coincident with intensified circulation.
– Model suggests conditions well-suited to a global storm in Mars year 33 and/or 34.

“Based on these findings, and comparison to the historical record, it seems there is a strong
chance of a mid-season GDS during MY 33, a stronger chance in MY 34, and an extremely high likelihood of a mid-season (perihelion) GDS in one or both of these two years.”

Note: By adopted convention, Mars Year 1 (MY1) began with the northern Spring equinox of April 11, 1955.
Mars Year 33 was 18 June 2015 to 5 May 2017.
Mars Year 34 began 5 May 2017, and ends with MY 35 beginning 23 March 2019. The Northern Hemisphere autumal equinox just occurred and was 22 May 2018.

This dust storm if it does become a global dust storm will surely support Shirley’s hypothesis.

Note: To head-off the sarcasm of using a GCM (general circulation model) of Mars GDS patterns, take note how much simpler is Mars’s atmosphere, and no liquid surface ocean or any large water phase changes affecting Mars climate and heat transport.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 13, 2018 9:44 pm

Also of note: Mars Year 34 perihelion is when Ls=250-270°, which is approx August-October 2018. So this storm may grow to be a monster over the next 4-5 months, if Shirley’s hypothesis is correct.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 13, 2018 10:28 pm

Here is a JAVA-script web page to convert Earth dates to Mars Year and determine the solar longitude (Ls).

Of note, 31May 2018 the Ls was = 184.6°. That makes this dust storm an equinox season GDS. The 2001 GDS (shown above in the HST image in the article) was during MY 25, and also had inception at Ls = 185°.

Matthew R Epp
June 13, 2018 9:49 pm

Opportunity has a different albedo than the rest of the surface creating differential heating. This temperature I’m balance caused the increasing winds.
See man kind caused this disruption in a pristine environment. If only mankind didn’t exist, then nothing bad would ever happen in nature. Of course the environmentally pure need to be alive, but the rest are a virus on Gaia and must be exterminated.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Matthew R Epp
June 13, 2018 9:54 pm

Let’s hope Berkeley decides to set the example for everyone else and go first.
Sayonara BEST.
Hasta la vista, Mosh.

June 13, 2018 11:50 pm

Telegraph repors:
“There was a similar planet enveloping dust storm on Mars in 2007, which Opportunity survived.”
If the report is correct, at both occasions, in 2007 was, and now solar activity is heading for the sunspot cycle’s minimum.

Gordon Dressler
June 14, 2018 8:05 am

And yet many people still agree with Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other “futurists” that mankind needs to establish a self-sufficient human colony on Mars.

It’s just laughable when you consider that the Martian atmosphere is 95.97% CO2, while the CAGW alarmists have nightmares about CO2 reaching the level of 0.04% in Earth’s atmosphere.

I’m just waiting for the science-based papers that will show the PLANET-WIDE dust storm is due to the high level of CO2 in the Martian atmosphere . . . I think I’ll be waiting a very long time.

June 14, 2018 9:42 am

“…more than a quarter of Mars’ land area.” Meaning that it didn’t affect all of Mars’ oceans??

Reply to  skorrent1
June 14, 2018 12:34 pm

Might be discounting the polar ice caps.

June 14, 2018 10:17 am

Imagine if we got there to colonise and these storms happened…. it would make incredibly hard life even harder.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Casey
June 14, 2018 12:20 pm

These Global Dust Storms (GDSs) happen a couple every ten years (Earth years). It would mean solar PV panels wouldn’t generate enough electricity. It would mean any attempts to use solar light to grow food in sealed hothouses would need extra stand-by lighting in case a dust strom came along during growing periods. That extra stand-by lighting would need power. Power from where? Nuclear or RTG are the only options.

Curiosity uses an RTG power source. But Pu238 that powers RTGs is very scarce and only generates a few kilowatts power per unit. A fission nuclear reactor unit would be heavy beyond imagination to send to Mars

The reality is that if a GDS happened while humans were on the Mars surface, safety protocols would demand the surface mission abort and return to orbit. To the safety of an orbiting return ship, where power and life support is stable.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 14, 2018 12:38 pm

Mars would need an atmosphere with more water in it to keep the dust down.

Denser air of course would make any wind which did occur more destructive. Melting some of the water ice under the Martian surface might provide the necessary moisture, but air pressure would still have to go up to keep the water from sublimating.

Reliable solar power on Mars would need to have panels higher than the dust zone, perhaps in orbit, with transmission via wavelengths capable of penetrating dust.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 14, 2018 1:01 pm

That said, I’m not sure that terraforming Mars would be worth the great cost. Colonizing the asteroid belt might be more promising.

There are however some interesting proposals which could have positive cost-benefit ratios. This scheme for an artificial magnetosphere looks feasible:

James Beaver
Reply to  Casey
June 14, 2018 9:07 pm

Colonies would likely start as covered trenches with living quarters dug into the sides of the trench. We’ll need a lot of dirt above the people to provide shielding.

I’m hoping Lockheed Martin’s compact fusion works out, or something similar:

Energy density will be even more important for a space colony than here on Earth. Martian water will make fusion a heck of a lot more logistically feasible, if the reactor can ever be engineered. Solar panels will rationally be niche sources, just like here.

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