[meteorite-list] Huge Dust Storm Breaks Out on Mars

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu, 28 Jun 2007 09:16:08 -0700 (PDT)
Message-ID: <200706281616.JAA11262_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Huge Dust Storm Breaks Out on Mars
By Dave Mosher
27 June 2007

A major dust storm has developed on the red planet, blocking sunlight
and prompting Mars mission managers to keep a close eye on it, SPACE.com
has learned.

It is not known how large the storm might grow, but already it is
thousands of miles across. If it balloons, as dust storms have done in
the past, it could hamper operations of NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and

For now, officials don't think the storm will threaten rover operations,
however. In fact, the windy conditions on the planet have blown off
large amounts of dust from the rovers' solar arrays, giving them more
power. The power boost may lend a helping hand to the Opportunity rover,
should officials decide to send it into Victoria Crater.

"We've been watching this storm for about six days now," said Steven
Squyres of Cornell University, who is the lead scientist of the Mars
Exploration Rover Project. "It's not unheard of for Martian dust storms
to cover half the planet, and this one is now a regional storm."

Squyres wasn't certain of the storm's exact size, but said it appears to
be thousands of miles in diameter and "ain't no little hurricane." In
fact, "it's one of the most sunlight-blocking storms we've
seen on Mars," he said.

According to reports from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which Squyres
deemed as Mars' weather satellite, the storm has grown in size and is
lifting up dust about 560 miles (900 KM) east of Opportunity, which is
presently at Meridiani Planum. "The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter team is
watching this closely, because we worry about dust in the atmosphere
obscuring the sunlight," Squyres said.

Experienced amateur astronomers have spotted the storm with large
telescopes. Paul Maxson of Phoenix, Arizona, was one of the first to
image the storm.

Dust storms on Mars occur regularly, but seldom do they grow beyond
regional proportions. A storm in 2001, however, engulfed the entire
planet in red dust.

"If the storm continues to get worse, it could cut into our activities,"
Squyres said. One of those activities, should the team decide it's not
too risky, could be the descent of Opportunity into the massive Victoria
Crater. A press conference is planned for Thursday to discuss the decision.

"The upshot of all this wind is that the arrays are so clean that the
dust is insignificant right now," he said. "But this is Mars, and we
can't predict the weather-we can only to react to it."

Diana Blaney, the deputy project manager for the Mars exploration rovers
at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said
dust levels can significantly impact the rovers' missions. "When big dust
storms like this come along, they decrease the energy the rovers can work
with," Blaney said.

JPL spokesperson Guy Webster said Mars mission managers will be
monitoring the storm's progress and how it may affect the planned
descent into the crater. "They've really been paying attention to the
storm and been getting regular reports of its progress," Webster said.
Received on Thu 28 Jun 2007 12:16:08 PM PDT

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