A storm of tiny dust particles has engulfed Mars over the last two weeks and prompted NASA’s Opportunity rover to suspend science operations. But across the planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been studying Martian soil at Gale Crater, is expected to remain largely unaffected by the dust. While Opportunity is powered by sunlight, which can’t penetrate the dust at its current location, Curiosity has a nuclear-powered battery that runs day and night.
Martian dust storms are common, especially during southern hemisphere spring and summer, when the planet is closest to the Sun. As the atmosphere warms, winds generated by larger contrasts in surface temperature at different locations mobilize dust particles the size of individual talcum powder grains. Carbon dioxide frozen on the winter polar cap evaporates, thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure. This enhances the process by helping suspend the dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds reach up to 40 miles (60 kilometers) or more in elevation.
Though they are common, Martian dust storms typically stay contained to a local area. By contrast, the current storm, if it were happening on Earth, would cover an area bigger than North America and Russia combined.
Image 1. This self-portrait by NASA's Curiosity rover was taken on June 15, 2018
Image 2 and 3. These two views from NASA's Curiosity rover, acquired specifically to measure the amount of dust inside Gale Crater, show how much dust increased over three days. Image 2 shows a view of the east-northeast rim of Gale Crater on June 7, 2018; image 3 shows a view of the same feature on June 10, 2018. The images were taken by the rover's Mastcam.
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