Mighty Storm Rages on Mars While Robot Fleet Stands Ready to Watch

Artist depiction of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which first detected the major Martian wind storm on May 30. (NASA/JPL)

There is a mighty windstorm now raging on Mars From all indications, it's a whopper, stronger than any since at least 2007 and now covering most of the planet.

In the opening scene of "The Martian," Matt Damon battles against a Red Planet gale that blows over equipment and sends objects flying. So you might expect that NASA is busy commanding its rovers and spacecraft to batten down their hatches and find safe havens to ride out the storm. In fact, on June 12, NASA lost contact with the rover Opportunity, located near the heart of the raging storm, where winds may be as high as 60 miles per hour.

But the loss of contact is not because the wind has toppled the rover or smashed it to pieces with a flying rock. Real Martian wind storms are less dramatic than you might believe from Hollywood. Mars' atmosphere is only a hundredth as thick as Earth's, so even a full-blown Martian gale wouldn't lift a kite.

Opportunity effectively went to sleep for a lack of sunlight. A thick veil of dust blown into the atmosphere by the storm choked off the rays of sunlight needed to charge its batteries.

A simulation of the sun's brightness in Opportunity's skies as more dust fills the atmosphere above. The right-most frame corresponds to daylight conditions at the site of the Opportunity rover today.
A simulation of the sun's brightness in Opportunity's skies as more dust fills the atmosphere above. The right-most frame corresponds to daylight conditions at the site of the Opportunity rover today. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Opportunity has entered a low-battery "sleep" mode to conserve whatever power is left. When the dust finally clears and full sunlight is restored, Opportunity's batteries will recharge and, if all goes well, the rover will transmit an "I'm alive!" message to Earth, whose humans are anxiously waiting:

An Opportunity for Learning

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On the flipside of the planet, located almost halfway around the globe, the rover Curiosity stands ready to observe. As the storm continues its fury in the days and weeks ahead, Curiosity's observations will provide valuable data on the storm's development, how it effects conditions on the ground, and ultimately how it dissipates.

Images captured by the rover Curiosity in Gale Crater, showing the increase in airborne dust from June 7 to June 10, attributed to the major wind storm blowing across over a quarter of the planet.
Images captured by the rover Curiosity in Gale Crater, showing the increase in airborne dust from June 7 to June 10, attributed to the major wind storm blowing across over a quarter of the planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

In fact, from the lower slopes of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater, Curiosity has detected an upswing of dust in the atmosphere around it — enough to show up on camera.

Curiosity is not vulnerable to the choking of sunlight by atmospheric dust, since it is powered by a nuclear generator.

A Team of Robots

In addition to having wheels on the ground to observe this storm, NASA has three spacecraft in orbit that will also make a study of this great dust-up event, each with instruments that offer unique scientific perspectives.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — which originally alerted NASA about the developing storm on May 30 — offers a comprehensive global view with its wide-angle camera, MARCI, as well as the potential to study localized effects with its powerful HiRISE camera.

Map of Mars from images captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 11. The brighter orange region shows the extent of the major wind storm raging where the Opportunity rover is located, and reaching halfway around the globe to the rover Opportunity.
Map of Mars from images captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on June 11. The brighter orange region shows the extent of the major wind storm raging where the Opportunity rover is located, and reaching halfway around the globe to the rover Opportunity. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Mars Odyssey can detect and measure dust density and distribution in the atmosphere beneath it, with its infrared camera, THEMIS.

MAVEN will investigate the highest levels of Mars' atmosphere to look for connections between dust storm activity and the loss of atmospheric gases into space, following up on observations by other spacecraft.

The three orbiters and one rover will work together to give us a comprehensive look at the storm's effects.

The Winds of Mars

Wind storms of different scales occur every Martian year, stirred up by surface heating from sunlight, especially when Mars passes closest to the sun with each orbit. Sometimes, an isolated Martian squall can grow into a much larger storm.

And every three to four Martian years (six to eight Earth years) a wind storm can grow to encircle the globe, kicking up enormous amounts of dust that shroud the planet — like the one we're seeing on Mars now.

Two pictures of Mars taken a month apart in 2001, before (left) and during a major global dust storm. Pictures were taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.
Two pictures of Mars taken a month apart in 2001, before (left) and during a major global dust storm. Pictures were taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

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When the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, Mariner 9, arrived in 1971, a major global dust storm was in full swing. Mariner 9 had to wait a couple of months for the dust to settle before it had a chance to take clear pictures of Mars' surface.


Today's dust-up has now officially grown to become one of these "planet-encircling" or global wind storms, and is already being called the most powerful storm ever observed on Mars. Scientists are hopeful for the windfall of science that may be blowing their way.

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