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NASA: Martian dust storm could impact Mars rovers

NASA says that a regional Martian dust storm could impact the space agency’s Mars rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity.

While NASA is interested in tracking this storm for scientific purposes, the space agency is also worried about the storm’s potential impacts on the daily operations of its rovers.

However, NASA says that if the regional dust storm grows into a global storm, the Opportunity rover is more likely to be impacted. The Opportunity rover team is worried that dust from the storm could wreak havoc on the rover’s solar panels, lowering its energy supply for daily operations.

The Curiosity rover, NASA notes, is powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Although the stunning images being sent back to Earth by Curiosity would likely contain some haze if the regional dust storm grows bigger, the Curiosity rover team doesn’t expect the dust to impact the rover’s energy supply.

For the time being, the Martian dust storm is still a regional one.

“This is now a regional dust storm. It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze, and it is in a part of the planet where some regional storms in the past have grown into global dust hazes,” says Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “For the first time since the Viking missions of the 1970s, we are studying a regional dust storm both from orbit and with a weather station on the surface.

The Martian dust storm was first tracked by Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Science Systems. The space agency says that the dust storm came within 837 miles of Opportunity and that atmospheric changes, created by the storm, have been detected by Curiosity. Curiosity, NASA notes, is more useful when it comes to tracking the storm because the rover has a weather station.

Sensors on Curiosity’s Rover Environment Monitoring Stations (REMS) noticed decreased air pressure and a minute increase in overnight low temperature.

It’s not every year that NASA sees a dust storm on Mars. Regional dust storms impacted larges areas of Mars in 2001 and 2007, but not between those years or since.

“One thing we want to learn is why do some Martian dust storms get to this size and stop growing, while others this size keep growing and go global,” Mr. Zurek says.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Mars Climate Sounder detected a warming of the atmosphere at about 16 miles above the dust storm beginning on November 16. Scientists believe that the atmosphere above the dust storm is warming because the dust is absorbing warm sunlight.

NASA will continue to track this regional dust storm and monitor its impacts on the space agency’s Mars rovers.

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