NASA’s Curiosity and Opportunity Rovers Brace for Massive Dust Storm

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter tracks the formation of massive dust storm.
Images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows storm forming and spreading | Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A massive dust storm has swept across the surface of Mars. As NASA loses its link with the long-lived Opportunity rover, Curiosity is tasked with observing the development of the storm inside the Gale Crater.

The immense dust storm has been building and spreading for the last week and a half. It formed in the same region as Opportunity depriving the solar-powered rover of a source of sunlight. Officials at NASA believe that the rover has entered its low-power mode and shutdown to reserve its remaining power. It is hoped that once the storm clears, Opportunity will wake up and continue its operations.

Although dust storms are common on the surface of the Mars, researchers have predicted that planet-scaled storms like this only occur every six to eight years (three to four Mars years). These storms can last weeks if not months and cover tens of millions of square kilometers.

Mars Curiosity rover tracks progressive of massive sand storm.
Images from Mars Curiosity rover showing the progression of the sand storm inside the Gale Crater | Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The dust storm currently engulfing the Red Planet is around 35 million square kilometers (14 million square miles) and is still growing. With NASA currently operating a record number of vehicles on and around Mars, the agency is in a unique position to closely study this rare event.

“This is the ideal storm for Mars science,” said the director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Jim Watzin. “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.”

In addition to the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on the surface of Mars, NASA is also currently tracking the storm with the Mars Odyssey and Maven spacecraft, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In concert, the vehicles are collecting data on atmospheric opacity, wind movement, surface/air temperature and pressure, and the storm’s density, size, and composition.

Feature image credit: NASA/JPL illustration