Mars is currently experiencing a huge dust storm that has stopped the operations of the Opportunity rover. The dust storm is so massive that it has blocked out the Sun and sent the solar-powered robot into low-power mode. Opportunity is expected to make a full recovery. Curiosity is also trapped in the dust storm, but being nuclear-powered it is less bothered by the dramatic event.
The rover has continued to snap pictures and send them to Earth. Citizen scientist Sean Doran was able to quickly render a composite image into a classic “Curiosity selfie” to show the car-sized rover deep within the dust storm.
If the name Sean Doran sounds familiar, it is likely due to his incredible work with pictures from Jupiter taken from the Juno spacecraft. His invaluable work has produced incredible images from many corners of the Solar System. The raw images taken by Curiosity can be found on the Mars Science Laboratory page.
The dust storm at its maximum extent covered about one-quarter of the planet. Seasonal dust storms are one of the many atmospheric features we have discovered thanks to the many observatories we have placed around the Red Planet. On Mars, dust plays an important role in regulating the temperature of the planet. The dust absorbs sunlight more than “clean” air, so it heats up faster. This temperature difference creates convection in the atmosphere, with downward winds moving on the edge of the dust storm.
Since 1997, researchers have witnessed several major storms. Twice, the entire planet ended up being covered completely in a dust storm. Dust storms are not as dramatic as the one portrayed in the opening of The Martian, but they can still damage our probes and landers.
Curiosity is currently exploring the middle of Gale Crater, studying the soil and rocks as it slowly climbs one of the more intriguing features in the crater, Mount Sharp. Observations conducted by the rover have recently confirmed some exciting news about the Red Planet: Mars has organic materials in rocks below its surface. These molecules are not a certain indication of life, but make it a bit more likely for lifeforms to have evolved when Mars was still water-rich.