A major dust storm appears to be brewing on Mars, threatening NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity rovers.
Martian atmospheric conditions currently indicate that a major dust storm may be pending, capable of doing significant damage to either of NASA’s rovers currently on the planet.
“Mars will reach the midpoint of its current dust storm season on October 29th of this year,” James Shirley, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the statement. “Based on the historical pattern we found, we believe it is very likely that a global dust storm will begin within a few weeks or months of this date.”
Local dust storms are fairly frequent on Mars, but they occasionally grow into regional or global storms capable of harming a rover or lander. In late August, several local dust storms became major regional dust storms, but did not escalate to the global level. The dust storm season typically reaches its peak during the spring and summer in the planet’s southern hemisphere, when Mars is closest to the sun. Major planet wide Martian dust storms were recorded in 1971, 1977, 1982, 1994 and 2001.
Global dust storms on Mars create a massive haze that blankets the planet, cutting rovers off from the sun. NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been active on Mars since 2004, is especially vulnerable because it is solar powered. NASA radioisotope-powered Curiosity rover will be much less vulnerable, but still could be impeded.
“The global dust storm in 2007 was the first major threat to the rovers since landing,” John Callas, project manager for NASA’s Opportunity rover, said in the statement. “We had to take special measures to enable their survival for several weeks with little sunlight to keep them powered. Each rover powered up only a few minutes each day, enough to warm them up, then shut down to the next day without even communicating with Earth. For many days during the worst of the storm, the rovers were completely on their own.”
China plans on sending a small 400 pound rover to Mars in 2020 as part of its ambitious, military-run, multibillion dollar space program. NASA plans to launch its own $2.1 billion dollar nuclear isotope powered Mars 2020 rover to the Red Planet as well.
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