Dust Devils Spotted Streaking Across Mars' Surface As Global Dust Storm Subsides

The streaked terrain of Ariadne Colles. ESA/Roscosmos/CaSSIS

Mars had an interesting few months. Since June, the entirety of the Red Planet has been enveloped in a gigantic global dust storm, thick enough to put the solar-powered Opportunity rover in sleep mode (which it has yet to wake up from) as well as affecting operations from orbiters studying the planet.

The dust storm is now subsiding and there are some new images that reveal the intriguing local effects that the storm has had. In photos collected by the European-Russian mission ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, it is possible to spot dark streaks across the Martian terrain. The team suggests that they might have been caused by dust devils, whirlwinds stirring up loose materials from the surface.

The team suspects dust devils are the best potential explanation because they think the cause of these streaks is most likely linked to the dust storm. The ExoMars pictures, taken on September 2 by the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System or CaSSIS aboard the orbiter, were compared with images of the same regions taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in March and there was little evidence of streaks then.

While the dust storm clearly slowed down some operations for ExoMars, it also offered an opportunity for some routine improvements of CaSSIS to be carried out.

“The dust-obscured observations are actually quite good for calibration,” CaSSiS Principal Investigator, Nicolas Thomas from the University of Bern, said in a statement. “The camera has a small amount of straylight [unintended light] and we have been using the dust storm images to find the source of the straylight and begin to derive algorithms to remove it.”

ExoMars is taking center stage at the European Planetary Science Congress in Berlin this week. The first scientific results from the orbiter will be announced at the congress. The mission is studying methane and other trace gasses that could indicate biological activities on the Red Planet.

“We are very excited to be discussing some of the first scientific results from the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter at EPSC this week, as well as the progress of the upcoming surface mission,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter project scientist.

“While our instrument teams are working hard analyzing the details of the atmospheric gas inventory and preparing these results for publication, we are certainly pleased to already be able to contribute to topical discussions on the dust storm and on issues that are essential for future crewed missions to Mars.”

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