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ASU Instrument Monitors Growing Martian Dust Storm

Scientists at Arizona State Univ.'s Mars Space Flight Facility are using the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter to monitor a new dust storm.

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Scientists at Arizona State Univ.'s Mars Space Flight Facility are using the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter to monitor a new dust storm.

The dust storm began in mid-March 2009, in the large Southern Hemisphere impact basin named Hellas. It has since grown as it spread northward in a patchy fashion. How large the storm will become is unknown, but previous storms have grown to envelop the whole planet for weeks at a time.

"This storm is coming at a time in the Martian year-around the planet's closest approach to the Sun-when dust storms are common," says Philip Christensen, of the Mars Space Flight Facility at ASU. Christensen, a professor of geological sciences is the designer and principal investigator for the THEMIS camera.

"But so far," he says, "this storm has not reached the severity of the big dust storm of 2001, or even the more modest one in 2007."

Mars' closest approach to the sun comes April 21, and summer begins in the planet's southern hemisphere in May. Both effects combine to produce the atmospheric heating that drives the dust activity.

Dust storms affect operations for all five spacecraft working at Mars—two NASA rovers on the ground (Spirit and Opportunity), plus three orbiters, NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

"If the dust causes a lot of obscuration, we lose the ability to image the ground," says Christensen. "In big dust storms, the rover teams are strongly affected as dust in the air reduces sunlight which provides power for driving and science operations. And when the dust finally settles out, it coats the solar panels, diminishing their capability."

"We've noticed increasing opacity over the last several days," says Steve Ruff, of the Mars Space Flight Facility. "This has produced a 20% drop in power for Spirit." Ruff is in charge of day-to-day operations for the Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometers, a mineral-scouting instrument each rover carries.

In the 2007 storm, dust blocked more than 99% of the sunlight for both rovers.

Source: Arizona State University