Mars Dust Storm Intensifies, May Go Global

This series of images shows simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s current view in the global dust storm (June 2018). The left starts with a blindingly bright mid-afternoon sky, with the sun appearing bigger because of brightness. The right shows the Sun so obscured by dust it looks like a pinprick.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / TAMU

The big dust storm on Mars has spread to cover a quarter of the planet. And the Opportunity rover has gone silent. NASA engineers attempted to contact the Opportunity rover on June 12 but did not hear back probably because the charge in its batteries has dropped below 24 volts. At that point, the rover enters low power mode where everything is turned off except the mission clock. The clock is programmed to wake the computer so it can check power levels. If there’s not enough, the rover goes back to sleep until the next check.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) photographed the dust storm from orbit in early June. The storm continues to spread and may cover the entire planet.  NASA / JPL-Caltech / Malin Space Science Systems

The dust cover is now extreme at Opportunity’s location with the storm equal to the combined area of North America and Russia. Mission engineers believe there may not be enough sunlight to charge the batteries for the next few days. The concern is that without battery power, the rover won’t be able to keep its electronics alive. Fortunately, the season is spring in the planet’s southern hemisphere, and temperatures are warming up. Mission scientists think that even if the storm continues to darken the sky and rob the rover of the sunlight it needs to produce electricity, temperatures won’t drop below Opportunity’s minimum allowable temperature.

Watch the storm grow in this animation taken from the MRO from orbit from May 31 to June 11. Curiosity may get dusted, but its power supply won’t be affected because it uses nuclear not solar. NASA / JPL-Caltech

A NASA teleconference to discuss Opportunity’s fate was held earlier today. You can listen to listen to the replay here.

The daytime sky at Opportunity looks as black as night in the middle of the day. Back on Earth, a number of Martian features have faded from view through the telescope. In previous global dust storms, the planet draws a blank slate and looks the color of one of those orange children’s aspirins. Big storms like this one take from several weeks to several months to clear. It’s a bummer if you’ve been eagerly waiting for Mars’ closest approach to Earth in 15 years. If you’re an planetary atmosphere scientist, the coming weeks will be among the best in your life.

Closeup from orbit of a dust storm on Mars in Nov. 2007. NASA

But let’s be optimistic. Temperature and atmospheric pressure differences drive winds . Winds pick up dust and get the process going. But once the atmosphere is laden with dust, those variations flatten out, temperatures stabilize and the storm decays. With falling wind speeds, dust drops out of the atmosphere and skies clear. Soon we hope!

4 Responses

  1. eah, but ask yourself, ‘why now?’ Probably because that solar flux is getting intense. Maybe it’s not just Earth that’s reacting. Maybe we have ‘Solar System Warming’ (Of course, not because of humans.)

    1. astrobob


      Great question! Yes, the sun is a dot from Pluto. It’s small, but it’s still has a shape that can be seen in a small telescope. Alpha Centauri is so far away that it’s much, much too small to see as a disk even with the largest telescopes. The best we can do is focus its light into a tiny point. Larger telescopes using special techniques have been able to show the shapes of several very large stars like Betelgeuse and Antares, but Alpha Centauri’s too small for current techniques to show a disk. I hope this helps.

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