Nasa Curiosity rover reveals stormy conditions on Mars

  • Rover has been observing whirlwinds carrying dust, known as dust devils, inside Gale crater
  • NASA engineers have been checking how far the wind moves grains of sand in a single day’s time

Although Mars is widely regarded as a ‘dead’ planet, the latest images from Curiosity reveal life on the red planet’s surface is alive with storms.

Stunning images from Curiosity have captured the clouds rolling across the red planet, dust storms kicking up and high winds screaming across the surface.

Wind has been shaping the Red Planet’s landscapes for billions of years and continues to do so today.

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This sequence of images shows a dust-carrying whirlwind, called a dust devil, scooting across ground inside Gale Crater, as observed on the local summer afternoon of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover’s 1,597th Martian day, or sol (Feb. 1, 2017). Timing is accelerated in this animation.    

The new studies, using both a NASA orbiter and a rover reveal its effects on scales grand to tiny on the strangely structured landscapes within Gale Crater.

It comes as NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, on the lower slope of Mount Sharp – a layered mountain inside the crater — begins the second phase begun a second campaign of investigating active sand dunes on the mountain’s northwestern flank.

The rover also has been observing whirlwinds carrying dust and checking how far the wind moves grains of sand in a single day’s time.

Gale Crater observations by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have confirmed long-term patterns and rates of wind erosion that help explain the oddity of having a layered mountain in the middle of an impact crater.

This pair of images shows effects of one Martian day of wind blowing sand underneath NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on a non-driving day for the rover. Each image was taken just after sundown by the rover’s Mars Descent Imager (MARDI). The area of ground shown spans about 3 feet left-to-right. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

‘The orbiter perspective gives us the bigger picture – on all sides of Mount Sharp and the regional context for Gale Crater. 

‘We combine that with the local detail and ground-truth we get from the rover,’ said Mackenzie Day of the University of Texas, Austin, lead author of a research report in the journal Icarus about wind’s dominant role at Gale.

The combined observations show that wind patterns in the crater today differ from when winds from the north removed the material that once filled the space between Mount Sharp and the crater rim. 

Beyond a dark sand dune closer to the rover, a Martian dust devil passes in front of the horizon in this sequence of images from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. The rover’s Navigation Camera made this series of observations on Feb. 4, 2017, during the local afternoon in Mars’ Gale Crater. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

Now, Mount Sharp itself has become a major factor in determining local wind directions. 

Wind shaped the mountain; now the mountain shapes the wind.

The Martian atmosphere is about a hundred times thinner than Earth’s, so winds on Mars exert much less force than winds on Earth. 

Time is the factor that makes Martian winds so dominant in shaping the landscape. Most forces that shape Earth’s landscapes — water that erodes and moves sediments, tectonic activity that builds mountains and recycles the planet’s crust, active volcanism — haven’t influenced Mars much for billions of years. 

Sand transported by wind, even if infrequent, can whittle away Martian landscapes over that much time. 

GALE CRATER: AN IMPACT BASIN 100 MILES WIDE

Gale Crater was born when the impact of an asteroid or comet more than 3.6 billion years ago excavated a basin nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide. 

Sediments including rocks, sand and silt later filled the basin, some delivered by rivers that flowed in from higher ground surrounding Gale. 

Curiosity has found evidence of that wet era from more than 3 billion years ago. 

A turning point in Gale’s history — when net accumulation of sediments flipped to net removal by wind erosion — may have coincided with a key turning point in the planet’s climate as Mars became drier, Day noted. 

The left side of this 360-degree panorama from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the long rows of ripples on a linear shaped dune in the Bagnold Dune Field on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. The rover's Navigation Camera recorded the component images of this mosaic on Feb. 5, 2017.

The left side of this 360-degree panorama from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the long rows of ripples on a linear shaped dune in the Bagnold Dune Field on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. The rover’s Navigation Camera recorded the component images of this mosaic on Feb. 5, 2017.

Scientists first proposed in 2000 that the mound at the center of Gale Crater is a remnant from wind eroding what had been a totally filled basin. 

The new work calculates that the vast volume of material removed — about 15,000 cubic miles (64,000 cubic kilometers) — is consistent with orbital observations of winds’ effects in and around the crater, when multiplied by a billion or more years.

Other new research, using Curiosity, focuses on modern wind activity in Gale.

The rover this month is investigating a type of sand dune that differs in shape from dunes the mission investigated in late 2015 and early 2016. 

 

Crescent-shaped dunes were the feature of the earlier campaign — the first ever up-close study of active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth. 

The mission’s second dune campaign is at a group of ribbon-shaped linear dunes.

‘In these linear dunes, the sand is transported along the ribbon pathway, while the ribbon can oscillate back and forth, side to side,’ said Nathan Bridges, a Curiosity science team member at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. 

Dust devils dance in the distance in this sequence of images taken by the Navigation Camera on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover on Feb. 12, 2017, during the afternoon of the rover’s 1,607th Martian day, or sol. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

The season at Gale Crater is now summer, the windiest time of year. 

That’s the other chief difference from the first dune campaign, conducted during less-windy Martian winter.

‘We’re keeping Curiosity busy in an area with lots of sand at a season when there’s plenty of wind blowing it around,’ said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. 

‘One aspect we want to learn more about is the wind’s effect on sorting sand grains with different composition. That helps us interpret modern dunes as well as ancient sandstones.’

This map shows the two locations of a research campaign by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission to investigate active sand dunes on Mars. In late 2015, Curiosity reached crescent-shaped dunes, called barchans. In February 2017, the rover reached a location where the dunes are linear in shape.

This map shows the two locations of a research campaign by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover mission to investigate active sand dunes on Mars. In late 2015, Curiosity reached crescent-shaped dunes, called barchans. In February 2017, the rover reached a location where the dunes are linear in shape.

Before Curiosity heads farther up Mount Sharp, the mission will assess movement of sand particles at the linear dunes, examine ripple shapes on the surface of the dunes, and determine the composition mixture of the dune material. 

Images taken one day apart of the same piece of ground, including some recent pairs from the downward-looking camera that recorded the rover’s landing-day descent, show small ripples of sand moving about an inch (2.5 centimeters) downwind.

Meanwhile, whirlwinds called ‘dust devils’ have been recorded moving across terrain in the crater, in sequences of afternoon images taken several seconds apart.

After completing the planned dune observations and measurements, Curiosity will proceed southward and uphill toward a ridge where the mineral hematite has been identified from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter observations. 

he Curiosity science team has decided to call this noteworthy feature the ‘Vera Rubin Ridge,’ commemorating Vera Cooper Rubin (1928-2016), whose astronomical observations provided evidence for the existence of the universe’s dark matter. 

As Curiosity focuses on the sand dunes, rover engineers are analyzing results of diagnostic tests on the drill feed mechanism, which drives the drill bit in and out during the process of collecting sample material from a rock. 

One possible cause of an intermittent issue with the mechanism is that a plate for braking the movement may be obstructed, perhaps due to a small piece of debris, resisting release of the brake. 

The diagnostic tests are designed to be useful in planning the best way to resume use of the drill.

THE GIGANTIC STORMS THAT CAN ENSHROUD MARS

Most Martian dust storms are localized, smaller than about 1,200 miles (about 2,000 kilometers) across and dissipating within a few days. 

Some become regional, affecting up to a third of the planet and persisting up to three weeks. 

A few encircle Mars, covering the southern hemisphere but not the whole planet. 

Twice since 1997, global dust storms have fully enshrouded Mars. 

The behavior of large regional dust storms in Martian years that include global dust storms is currently unclear, and years with a global storm were not included in the new analysis.

Three large regional storms, dubbed types A, B and C, all appeared in each of the six Martian years investigated.


A new Nasa study has given unprecedented insight into the giant storms that can engulf the entire red planet. This graphic overlays Martian atmospheric temperature data as curtains over an image of Mars taken during a regional dust storm.

When a Type A storm from the north moves into southern-hemisphere spring, the sunlight on the dust warms the atmosphere. 

That energy boosts the speed of winds. 

The stronger winds lift more dust, further expanding the area and vertical reach of the storm.

In contrast, the Type B storm starts close to the south pole shortly before the beginning of southern summer. 

Its origin may be from winds generated at the edge of the retreating south-polar carbon dioxide ice cap. Multiple storms may contribute to a regional haze.

The Type C storm starts after the B storm ends. 

It originates in the north during northern winter (southern summer) and moves to the southern hemisphere like the Type A storm. 

From one year to another, the C storm varies more in strength, in terms of peak temperature and duration, than the A and B storms do. 

 

The rover team is also investigating why the lens cover on Curiosity’s arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) did not fully open in response to commands on Feb. 24. 

Although Mars is widely regarded as a ‘dead’ planet, one astronomer has used images from Nasa’s Mars Express to create these incredible animations proving otherwise.

They reveal clouds rolling across the red planet, dust storms kicking up and high wands screaming across the surface.

At first glance, they even look uncannily similar to conditions on Earth.  


A Dust storm over Tempe Terra, seen by Mars Express’ HRSC during a pass on June 17, 2011. This image was taken during the spacecraft’s 9520th orbit of Mars. It shows dust being lifted by a cold front dropping southeastward. This zone of activity grew into a major regional storm that then propagated 5,500 km southward over the next two days before dying out over the Argyre Basin region. The streamers are at ground level, so their motion is almost entirely to the movement of wind. The puffy clouds of dust are at higher altitude, and their apparent motion in the opposite direction of wind movement is almost entirely due to parallax from Mars Express’ orbital motion.ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / Justin Cowart

‘Still images of Mars often give us a false impression that Mars is a dead planet, with nothing going on other than the occasional dust storm,’ wrote Justin Cowart, who created the images and posted them on The Planetary Society blog.

‘Do a quick image search for Mars and most of the results are mosaics designed to show Martian geography, not meteorology. 

‘But these images don’t tell the planet’s full story,’ he said.

‘Martian weather is dynamic, with water ice cloud streets forming around the polar areas, cold fronts pushing through the midlatitudes and raising dust storms, and thin hazes forming as air flows around topographic obstacles like volcanoes and crater rims.’

 Cowart created the images using data from Nasa’s Mars Express data from June 2011. 


This animation shows wake clouds and dust lifting in Arcadia Planitia, seen by Mars Express’ HRSC during a pass on June 30, 2011. This image was taken during the spacecraft’s 9563rd orbit of Mars, and shows several different cloud types. ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / Justin Cowart

They show several different areas in the northern hemisphere during the height of the dust storm season on the red planet.  

Most Martian dust storms are localized, smaller than about 1,200 miles (about 2,000 kilometers) across and dissipating within a few days. 

Some become regional, affecting up to a third of the planet and persisting up to three weeks. 

HOW THE INCREDIBLE IMAGES WERE MADE 

The HRSC High Resolution Stereo Colour Imager (HRSC) instrument onboard Mars Express was designed to produce stereographic color maps of Mars.

It does this uses a set of 9 sensors. 

Four of these sensors image the surface in color at blue, green, red, and near-IR wavelengths. 


Wind blowing up the slope of the 52 km wide Micoud Crater in eastern Acidalia Planitia, seen by Mars Express’ HRSC during a pass on June 30, 2011. This image was taken during the spacecraft’s 9565th orbit of Mars. ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / Justin Cowart

The other five collect stereo and photometric data using broadband filters that cover roughly the same spectral range. 

The sensors are mounted at different angles, looking between 20 degrees ahead and behind the spacecraft. 

Parallax from the five different viewing angles allows mission scientists to create images of the surface with 10 to 15 meter vertical resolution.


A small but intense dust storm just north of Deuteronilus Mensae, seen by Mars Express’ HRSC during a pass on June 30, 2011. This image was taken during the spacecraft’s 9565th orbit of Mars. ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / Justin Cowart

However, Cowart realised the offset viewing angles for the sensors onboard the spacecraft allow for something else: time-lapse images.

If the wind is blowing at the surface, the time between sequential images is just long enough that the motion of dust clouds is visible. 

If clouds are at higher altitude, then the parallax also shows up as motion. 

The color data can then be overlain to colorize the scene.

A few encircle Mars, covering the southern hemisphere but not the whole planet. 

Twice since 1997, global dust storms have fully enshrouded Mars. 

‘These images are only a small portion of the bounty hiding in the HRSC archives,’ Cowart said.

The camera has operated at Mars since 2005, and in the thousands of images it has taken of the Martian surface, clouds are present in more than a few.’

Researchers revently also spotted another strange weather phenomenon – nightglow.

Nightglow is a common planetary phenomenon in which the sky faintly glows even in the complete absence of external light. 


Dust lifting over Arcadia Planitia, Mars Wake clouds and dust lifting in Arcadia Planitia, seen by Mars Express’ HRSC during a pass on June 30, 2011. This image was taken during the spacecraft’s 9563rd orbit of Mars. Thin cumulus clouds are also seen drifting over a pair of unnamed craters further south. The narrow bands of clouds are called cloud streets, and form as cold air moves in behind a front. ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / Justin Cowart 


Dust lifting in the canyons of Deuteronilus Mensae, seen by Mars Express’ HRSC during a pass on June 30, 2011. This image was taken during the spacecraft’s 9565th orbit of Mars. This area is full of rugged canyons where the highlands and lowlands meet. The dust storm seen here was short-lived, but it did provide some beautiful shots of the surface. ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / Justin Cowart

Mars’ nightside atmosphere emits light in the ultraviolet due to chemical reactions that start on Mars’ dayside.

Ultraviolet light from the sun breaks down molecules of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and the resulting atoms are carried around the planet by high-altitude wind patterns that encircle the planet.

On the nightside, these winds bring the atoms down to lower altitudes where nitrogen and oxygen atoms collide to form nitric oxide molecules.

The recombination releases extra energy, which comes out as ultraviolet light.  

 







Courtesy: Daily Mail Online

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