By Joseph Serna
7:30 AM PST, November 25, 2012
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and two planet-based explorers are tracking a massive dust storm, offering scientists an opportunity to study the planet’s weather like none they’ve had before.
The regional dust storm was first spotted on Nov. 10 in the Red Planet's southern hemisphere. Though the storm is considered only “regional,” it’s big enough that it has lowered air pressure on either side of the planet and increased temperatures on the opposite pole by changing the atmosphere’s circulation.
Scientists are waiting to see whether it will develop into a “dust haze” that will engulf the entire 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.
The storm has come within 900 miles of Mars rover Opportunity, which landed on the planet in 2004 and depends on the sun for energy. On the other side of the planet is Curiosity, the 1-ton, nuclear-powered mobile laboratory that landed earlier this year.
If the dust storm expands, the two rovers combined with the Reconnaissance Orbiter should give scientists an unprecedented view.
“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.
Between Nov. 10 and Nov. 16, the region around the dust storm heated up by about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, scientists say. The dust is absorbing sunlight instead of reflecting it, lifting dust above the planet surface and pushing the storm wider.
If the dust engulfs Mars, it could reduce Opportunity’s energy supply. Curiosity’s power would not be affected. Photos from its cameras could be hazy, however, not unlike its first images after it landed on the planet in the summer.
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