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NASA spacecraft studying massive Martian dust storm

By
Brooks Hays
The dust storm on Mars continues to grow. As of June 14, it covered nearly a quarter of the planet. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The dust storm on Mars continues to grow. As of June 14, it covered nearly a quarter of the planet. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

June 14 (UPI) -- A record dust storm has been swirling on Mars for nearly two weeks. While the weather has forced the Opportunity rover to bunker down and suspend all scientific activities, several other spacecraft are taking the opportunity to study the storm.

"This is the ideal storm for Mars science," Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release. "We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave -- knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions."

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Dust storms are a well known phenomenon on Mars, but they are infrequent. The last Martian dust storm occurred in 2007. The storms can develop seemingly overnight and last weeks, or even months.

During the southern hemisphere's summer, Martian dust rises higher into the atmosphere as it's heated. The updrafts of dust can trigger more winds, triggering a feedback loop that fuels the birth of a dust storm.

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The current dust storm, which is still growing, currently covers 14 million square miles of the Martian surface, nearly 25 percent of the planet.

Scientists gauge the strength of a dust storm with the unit tau, a measurement of the atmosphere's opacity. In 2007, Opportunity weathered a large dust storm with a tau of 5.5. As of Sunday morning, the current dust storm boasted a tau of 10.8.

Now, the tau near the Curiosity rover is rising, too.

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Because dust storms can alter the Martian landscape, shaping the surface's rocks and sediment, understanding the storms' dynamics is essential to understanding the Red Planet's geological history.

NASA's two orbiters, the 2001 Mars Odyssey and MAVEN, can help scientists observe the storms growth and movements from above, as well as measure the levels of dust in the atmosphere. The Curiosity Rover, which is currently collecting rock samples on Mount Sharp, can measure temperatures in the lower atmosphere, as well as the storm's tau.

In addition to measuring the storms size and opacity, like NASA's other spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, can measure wind speed.

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Scientists at NASA hope to combine the observations from their entire Martian fleet to build more accurate dust storm models -- models that in the future could help them forecast dust storms.

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