Martian dust storm now global

Nuclear powered Curiosity rover captures photos through the haze, while Opportunity goes into sleep mode due to lack of solar power.

Via NASA Goddard – A storm of tiny dust particles has engulfed much of Mars over the last two weeks and prompted NASA’s Opportunity rover to suspend science operations. But across the planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been studying Martian soil at Gale Crater, is expected to remain largely unaffected by the dust. While Opportunity is powered by sunlight, which is blotted out by dust at its current location, Curiosity has a nuclear-powered battery that runs day and night.

The Martian dust storm has grown in size and is now officially a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event, according to Bruce Cantor, deputy principal investigator of the Mars Color Imager camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, provided and operates MARCI.

image of rover on Mars with rocks
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.”
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Though Curiosity is on the other side of Mars from Opportunity, dust has steadily increased over it, more than doubling over the weekend. The atmospheric haze blocking sunlight, called “tau,” is now above 8.0 at Gale Crater — the highest tau the mission has ever recorded. Tau was last measured near 11 over Opportunity, thick enough that accurate measurements are no longer possible for Mars’ oldest active rover.

For NASA’s human scientists watching from the ground, Curiosity offers an unprecedented window to answer some questions. One of the biggest: Why do some Martian dust storms last for months and grow massive, while others stay small and last only a week?

“We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity’s dust storm investigation.

Curiosity, he points out, plus a fleet of spacecraft in the orbit of Mars, will allow scientists for the first time to collect a wealth of dust information both from the surface and from space. The last storm of global magnitude that enveloped Mars was in 2007, five years before Curiosity landed there.

Below: ANIMATION OVER SEVERAL DAYS – may take some time to load

moving image showing darkening dust storm
In June 2018 NASA’s Curiosity Rover used its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, to snap photos of the intensifying haziness the surface of Mars, caused by a massive dust storm. The rover is standing inside Gale Crater looking out to the crater rim. The photos span about a couple of weeks, starting with a shot of the area before the storm appeared.
Credits: NASA

In the animation above, Curiosity is facing the crater rim, about 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) away from where it stands inside the crater. Daily photos captured by its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, show the sky getting hazier. This sun-obstructing wall of haze is about six to eight times thicker than normal for this time of season.

Curiosity’s engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have studied the potential for the growing dust storm to affect the rover’s instruments, and say it poses little risk. 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. JPL leads the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission.

two images of a rock, one redder in color
Two images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity rover depicting the change in the color of light illuminating the Martian surface since a dust storm engulfed Gale Crater. The left image shows the “Duluth” drill site on Sol 2058 (May 21); the right image is from Sol 2084 (June 17). The cherry red color is due to red dust grains in the atmosphere letting red light through to the surface, but not green or blue, and to different exposure times for the two images.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Martian dust storms are common, especially during southern hemisphere spring and summer, when the planet is closest to the Sun. As the atmosphere warms, winds generated by larger contrasts in surface temperature at different locations mobilize dust particles the size of individual talcum powder grains. Carbon dioxide frozen on the winter polar cap evaporates, thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure. This enhances the process by helping suspend the dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds reach up to 40 miles (60 kilometers) or more in elevation.

Though they are common, Martian dust storms typically stay contained to a local area. By contrast, the current storm, if it were happening on Earth, would cover the area of North America and Russia combined, said Guzewich.

The dust storm may seem exotic to some Earthlings, but it’s not unique to Mars. Earth has dust storms, too, in desert regions such as North Africa, the Middle East and the southwest United States.

But conditions here prevent them from spreading globally, said Ralph A. Kahn, a Goddard senior research scientist who studies the atmospheres of Earth and Mars. These include the structure of our thicker atmosphere and stronger gravity that helps settle dust. Earth also has vegetation cover on land that binds the soil with its roots and helps block the wind and rain that wash the particles out of the atmosphere.

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J Mac
June 26, 2018 5:15 pm

We need more inspiring hard science like this!
And less navel lint gazing at the negligible implications of a 4th molecule of CO2 in every 10,000 molecules of earthly atmosphere.

Tom Abbott
June 26, 2018 5:46 pm

Those Martian rovers are just amazing! They have definitely earned their money.

June 26, 2018 5:51 pm

Note, the nuclear is working, not so much the solar.

Sam C Cogar
Reply to  JimG1
June 27, 2018 8:17 am

Shur nuff, ….. “green energy” is also unreliable on planet Mars.

Mars Science Laboratory uses a radioisotope power system to generate electricity needed to operate the rover and its instruments.

Radioisotope electrical power and heating systems enable science missions that require greater longevity, more diverse landing locations or more power or heat than missions limited to solar power systems.

Reply to  JimG1
June 28, 2018 6:59 am

You might want to check the price tag for both. The RTG (Radioisotope Thermal Generator) is powered by Plutonium 238, a man-made isotope with a half-life of 88 years. Not cheap!

June 26, 2018 5:53 pm

Oh No! Manmade climate change has spread to Mars already

Pat Lane
Reply to  JCalvertN(UK)
June 26, 2018 7:19 pm

I think it’s caused by the extra heat from Earth making its way to Mars.
Oh, and single-use shopping bags. Fortunately, the two major supermarket chains in Australia are ‘saving the planet’ by getting rid of free plastic bags and replacing them with Gaia-friendly ones that they charge for.
The problem on Mars should be fixed shortly.

Reply to  Pat Lane
June 26, 2018 8:16 pm

Just saved a major part of the marine fauna myself for the first time this morning at Woollies. Cost me $2 for two heavy-duty plastic (others sold out) and $0.60 for four large thin plastic carriers that might last a month or two. Total mass in just purchased plastic bags is probably equivalent to 3 months of those 3g grey totes and I’m pretty sure a combination of wear, tear and forgetfulness will result in no significant difference in the mass of my plastic bag use this year. Still have to buy bin liners too. However, I would feel very virtuous, if only everyone else weren’t in the same boat.

John F. Hultquist
Reply to  Pat Lane
June 26, 2018 9:36 pm

We have never liked the thin plastic bags. For years our first stop in a grocery store was the produce section. Most often the folks there can provide a box. At the check-out counter we get a 5 cent credit for the box, while not having to pay** for the bags. We have boxes in our cars, so if we don’t get a box in-store we use the cart to go from store to car.

**A city fee on visual plastic (clings to fences and trees) not liked by council members. The plastic they don’t see, such as salad dressing containers (and many others) is ignored. One only goes so far in saving the planet.

Reply to  JCalvertN(UK)
June 27, 2018 3:14 am

“Oh No! Manmade climate change has spread to Mars already”
IT JUST OCCURRED TO ME : IF you changed that spelling
from ” Man-made”
to “Man-maid”..would the Feminists regard THAT as GENDER NEUTRAL ???
( It already has a STRONG FEMALE BIAS in “Ma”
being about HALF THE WORDS Mars , Man and Maid ALREADY ! )

Jimmy Haigh
June 26, 2018 6:20 pm

The Red Wave…

Reply to  Jimmy Haigh
June 26, 2018 9:15 pm

That deserves two pluses, but I can only give 1. The red wave, is coming to a planet by you…

June 26, 2018 7:09 pm

Interesting. There is a hypothesis that dust storms and the resulting dust deposits on ice sheets help end the glacial periods on Earth.
The article also states: “Earth also has vegetation cover on land that binds the soil with its roots and helps block the wind and rain that wash the particles out of the atmosphere.”
But these two factors would be greatly reduced during a glacial maximum.

Now I think we can imagine what a huge hemisphere-wide dust storm on Earth might look like, and what impact it could have on the glacial ice sheets.

Sam C Cogar
Reply to  TonyL
June 27, 2018 8:42 am

I found this statement that you cited ……. a little odd when I first read it in the published commentary, to wit:

Earth also has vegetation cover on land that binds the soil with its roots and helps block the wind and rain that wash the particles out of the atmosphere.

So “Yup”, a vegetative cover helps to prevent wind/water erosion, …. but how does it help block rainwater from falling through the atmosphere?

Reply to  Sam C Cogar
June 27, 2018 10:01 am

There is a line of thought that ice age conditions are very dry compared to interglacials. The thinking is that the lower temperatures produce less evaporation from the oceans and therefor less overall precipitation. This is what I was thinking about precipitation.
Agreed that what to authors wrote seems a bit odd or awkwardly written.

June 26, 2018 7:19 pm

I wonder whatever is initiating such climate events? They (the Martians I mean!) have no water anywhere – yet they must have barometric pressure differences. Are their “climate changes” caused by the sun? Or by their seasons? Lots of interesting questions.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  AndyE
June 26, 2018 7:31 pm

I would say the changes are caused by the Sun. The orientation of Mars spin axis should also be considered.

David (nobody)
Reply to  Tom Abbott
June 26, 2018 8:51 pm

Maybe they hadn’t pruned back enough of the growth coming out of the canals and sequestered the resulting carbon. Those dust storms just strip down the martian vines and lift the carbon back into the atmosphere. They don’t have a sufficiently high tax rate yet to encourage proper behaviour. Have a chuckle.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
June 27, 2018 7:59 am

I think that the answer has to do with the relationship of the storm to the proximity of the solar minimum, see comments above.

Joel O’Bryan
June 26, 2018 8:53 pm

“We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity’s dust storm investigation.”

Of course they do. These toads just don’t want to admit publicly that orbital-spin coupling can drive such planet-wide events. They certainly are informed of the work by James Shirley at JPL.

Read more here:
Solar System dynamics and global-scale dust storms on Mars

Guzewich’s contemporary, James Shirley at JPL, in Pasadena has almost certainly found the key. They probably don’t like it because James Shirley only has an MS and not a PhD. This is a Malinkovitch moment for Mars climate – global dust storms. Old hypotheses die hard. Rivalries interfere with admitting the other guy is probably correct.

Additionally, they don’t like Shirley’s hypothesis because by extension it would strongly imply/support similar momentum spin-orbit coupling hypotheses here on Earth can drive phenomenon …. like the ENSO.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
June 27, 2018 3:07 am

It’s odd: Scientists don’t have a problem connecting the Sun and Pluto’s spin axis orientation to Pluto’s weather, but they can’t seem to do the same thing with Mars.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
June 27, 2018 7:55 am

I just read your comment after making a first impression comment above. I read the abstract which you linked to. Now look at how that correlates with my speculative comment above. My first thought was that there was a slim clue between the last storm in 2007 with this current storm. That is that it is related to the beginning of the solar minimum. Now look at the years of past solar storms of similar magnitude, (1956, 1971, 1982, 1994, and 2007). Starting with 1956 that is during the end part of the solar minimum.

The year 1971 is 3 years prior to the solar minimum, but sunspots in 1971 have dropped fairly low, especially by the end of 1971. The year 1982 is also around 3 years prior to the solar minimum, and sunspots have also dropped down to lower count by the end of 1982. The year 1994 is 2 years prior to the solar minimum, similar to 2007 and the current ongoing dust storm which is within 2 years of the solar minimum, imo.

Sam C Cogar
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
June 27, 2018 9:09 am

joelobryan – June 26, 2018 8:53 pm

They probably don’t like it because James Shirley only has an MS and not a PhD.

Right you are, joelobryan, …… the unwritten Rules for most all Public Employees is that … “Degree status and seniority determines one’s expertise of the subject in question”.

Its sometimes referred to as ……… “Rank before Frank”, …… Frank being a subordinate employee of lesser Degree status or tenure.

Mark Bishop
June 26, 2018 9:34 pm

Just like a West Texas Dustnado…

June 27, 2018 3:11 am

Dang ! This wouldn’t have happened if the Martians had implemented a “Carbon Tax” like I told them….Now my Martian Carbon Stocks have hit rock bottom !!! Send me money please !! LOL

June 27, 2018 3:20 am

People really want to live on Mars?

June 27, 2018 5:10 am

JimG1 beat me to it! Go nuke or go to sleep. Amazing that either of these machines are operating so far past the sell by date. Supposed to have been dead quite awhile ago.

Bloke down the pub
June 27, 2018 6:33 am

I’ve never quite got my head around how the rovers are able to take a selfie without the arm appearing in the shot. My best guess is that it’s a compilation of images ?

Reply to  Bloke down the pub
June 27, 2018 6:48 am

The rovers use the mast camera, taking the picture via a remote teleportation mirror which is projected in front of the rover. The picture is simply a “selfie” done in a mirror.

Reply to  Bloke down the pub
June 27, 2018 10:22 am

Perhaps they used a drone? 😉

June 27, 2018 7:22 am

““We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist…”

Can’t they just build a model? NASA seems to accept models, they don’t even need all the variables.


June 27, 2018 7:28 am

There is one slim clue as to cause to the dust storms. Note that the last dust storm took place in 2007 which is at the beginning of the last solar minimum. That is approximately equal to the current solar state. What record is there of past global Martian dust storms? Can they also be linked to the onset of the solar minimum?

June 27, 2018 4:57 pm

The last few nights, Mars stands out definitively red, not as tinged red.

It’s got me thinking that I should drag out the reflector to take a look.

June 27, 2018 10:42 pm

Back in the 1950’s there was a radio program called “X Minus One” from
stories from a Sci-Fi Mag called Galaxy which had a story called “The Wind
Is Rising.” It is so wonderful that in my lifetime aspects of that story have
come to be. The ‘wind’ was on Mars as a mission from Earth had landed
and the locals went off to ‘the hills’ because of the winds. Since the Martian
atmosphere is very thin it may not be that bad. A good story.

June 28, 2018 8:20 am

Cool! Even on another planet, the difference between unreliable solar power and dependable nuclear power is obvious.

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