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NASA: Mars dust storm may hit Curiosity rover

NASA says a massive martian dust storm may hit its Curiosity rover, raising questions about how the one-ton rover will fare.

In a statement released earlier this week, NASA officials said they are tracking the regional dust storm on Mars, noting that it has not affected the operations of its two rovers on the surface.

“This is now a regional dust storm,” Rich Zurek, NASA’s chief Mars scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement Wednesday. “It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze and it is in a part of the planet were some regional storms have grown into global dust hazes.”

Unlike past missions, NASA’s advanced warning system will allow scientists to study the storm’s trek across the red planet. Using the orbiter’s Mars Color Imager, Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, began observing the storm earlier this month, before subsequently reported it to the team operating NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity.

The storm reportedly came within 840 miles of Opportunity’s location. On the opposite side of the red planet, a weather station aboard NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, detected changes in air pressure and overnight temperature related to the storm.

The massive dust storm could provide scientists with a chance to explore how the storms impact different regions across the planet.

“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,” said Rich Zurek, chief Mars scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge in a news statement Wednesday.

NASA scientists say the dust storms could provide various clues regarding whether life once existed on Mars. Researchers using the car-sized mobile laboratory have identified transient whirlwinds, mapped winds in relation to slopes, tracked daily and seasonal changes in air pressure, and linked rhythmic changes in radiation to daily atmospheric changes. The knowledge being gained about these processes helps scientists interpret evidence about environmental changes on Mars that might have led to conditions favorable for life.

“Dust in the atmosphere has a major role in shaping the climate on Mars,” said Manuel de la Torre Juarez of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He is the investigation scientist for REMS, which Spain provided for the mission. “The dust lifted by dust devils and dust storms warms the atmosphere.”

The dust storm could present challenges for NASA. If this latest storm turns into a global one, the solar-powered Opportunity would see an energy decline. Curiosity, powered by plutonium, will not be directly affected, according to the space agency. The main effects of increased dust in the air at its site would be haze in images and increased air temperature.

Dust storms on Mars have been known to expand quickly, enveloping the entire planet in a thick layer of dust. Regional dust storms expanded and affected vast areas of Mars in 2001 and 2007, but not between those years nor since 2007.

“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,” Zurek said.