NASA Spots Opportunity as the Dust Storm Clears. Still No Word From Her Though

A new image produced by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has located the Opportunity rover on Mars. As expected, the rover was spotted on the  slopes of the Perseverance Valley, where it went into hibernation mode about 100 days ago when the planet-covering dust storm darkened skies above the region.

Continue reading “NASA Spots Opportunity as the Dust Storm Clears. Still No Word From Her Though”

As the Martian Dust Storm Subsides, There’s Still No Word From Opportunity

Martian dust storms are a pretty common occurrence, and generally happen whenever the southern hemisphere is experiencing summer. Though they can begin quite suddenly, these storms typically stay contained to a local area and last only about a few weeks. However, on occasion, Martian dust storms can grow to become global phenomena, covering the entire planet.

One such storm began back in May, starting in the Arabia Terra region and then spreading to become a planet-wide dust storm within a matter of weeks. This storm caused the skies over the Perseverance Valley, where the Opportunity rover is stationed, to become darkened, forcing the rover into hibernation mode. And while no word has been heard from the rover, NASA recently indicated that the dust storm will dissipate in a matter of weeks.

The update was posted by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which oversees operations for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, as well as NASA’s three Mars orbiters (Mars Odyssey, MRO, and MAVEN) and the Insight lander (which will land on Mars in 109 days). According to NASA, the storm is beginning to end, though it may be weeks or months before the skies are clear enough for Opportunity to exit its hibernation mode.

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As noted, dust storms occur on Mars when the southern hemisphere experiences summer, which coincides with the planet being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand.

Since the southern polar region is pointed towards the Sun in the summer, carbon dioxide frozen in the polar cap evaporates. This has the effect of thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure, which enhances the process by helping suspend dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds can reach up to 60 km (40 mi) or more in elevation.

Planet-wide dust storms are a relatively rare occurrence on Mars, taking place every three to four Martian years (the equivalent of approximately 6 to 8 Earth years). Such storms have been viewed many times in the past by missions like Mariner 9 (1971), Viking I (1971) and the Mars Global Surveyor (2001). In 2007, a similar storm took place that darkened the skies over where Opportunity was stationed – which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications.

While smaller and less intense the storm that took place back in 2007, the current storm intensified to the point where it led to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm. In effect, the amount of dust in the atmosphere created a state of perpetual night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley, which forced the rover’s science team to suspend operations.

Simulated views of a darkening Martian sky blotting out the Sun from NASA’s Opportunity rover’s point of view, with the right side simulating Opportunity’s view in the global dust storm as of June 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU

This is due to the fact that Opportunity – unlike the Curiosity rover, which runs on nuclear-powered battery – relies on solar panels to keep its batteries charged. But beyond suspending operations, the prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running – which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars’ atmosphere.

Luckily, NASA scientists who have been observing the global event indicated that, as of last Monday (July 23rd), more dust was falling out of the planet’s thin air than was being raised into it. This means that the global weather event has reached its decay phase, where dust-raising events either become confined to smaller areas or stop altogether.

Using its Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Mars Climate Sounder (MCS), NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) also noted surface features were beginning to reappear and that temperatures in the middle atmosphere were no longer rising – which indicates less solar heating by dust. The Curiosity rover also noted a decline in dust above its position in the Gale Crater on the other side of the planet.

This is certainly good new for the Opportunity rover, though scientists expect that it will still be a few weeks or months before its solar panels can draw power again and communications can be reestablished. The last time communications took place with the rover was on June 10th, but if there’s one thing the Opportunity rover is known for, it’s endurance!

When the rover first landed on Mars on January 25th, 2004, its mission was only expected to last ninety Martian days (sols), which is the equivalent of about 92.5 Earth days. However, as of the writing of this article, the rover has endured for 14 years and 195 days, effectively exceeding its operational lifespan 55 times over. So if any rover can survive this enduring dust storm, its Opportunity!

In the meantime, multiple NASA missions are actively monitoring the storm in support of Opportunity and to learn more about the mechanics of Martian storms. By learning more about what causes these storms, and how smaller ones can merge to form global events, future robotic missions, crewed missions and (quite possibly) Martian colonists will be better prepared to deal with them.

Further Reading: NASA

This Stunning Photo Shows the Martian Dust Storm as it was Just Getting Going

The weather patterns on Mars are rather fascinating, owing to their particular similarities and differences with those of Earth. For one, the Red Planet experiences dust storms that are not dissimilar to storms that happen regularly here on Earth. Due to the lower atmospheric pressure, these storms are much less powerful than hurricanes on Earth, but can grow so large that they cover half the planet.

Recently, the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter captured images of the towering cloud front of a dust storm located close to Mars’ northern polar region. This storm, which began in April 2018, took place in the region known as Utopia Planitia, close to the ice cap at the Martian North Pole. It is one of several that have been observed on Mars in recent months, one which is the most severe to take place in years.

The images (shown above and below) were created using data acquired by the Mars ExpressHigh Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The camera system is operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and managed to capture images of this storm front – which would prove to be the harbinger of the Martian storm season – on April 3rd, 2018, during its 18,039th orbit of Mars.

Anaglyph 3D image of the dust storm front forming above the subpolar plains in northern Mars. Credit: Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

This storm was one of several small-scale dust storms that have been observered in recent months on Mars. A much larger storm emerged further southwest in the Arabia Terra region, which began in May of 2018 and developed into a planet-wide dust storm within several weeks.

Dust storms occur on Mars when the southern hemisphere experiences summer, which coincides with the planet being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand.

Since the southern polar region is pointed towards the Sun in the summer, carbon dioxide frozen in the polar cap evaporates. This has the effect of thickening the atmosphere and increases surface pressure, which enhances the storms by helping to suspend dust particles in the air. Though they are common and can begin suddenly, Martian dust storms typically stay localized and last only a few weeks.

While local and regional dust storms are frequent, only a few of them develop into global phenomena. These storms only occur every three to four Martian years (the equivalent of approximately 6 to 8 Earth years) and can persist for several months. Such storms have been viewed many times in the past by missions like Mariner 9 (1971), Viking I (1971) and the Mars Global Surveyor (2001).

This global map of Mars shows a growing dust storm as of June 6, 2018. The map was produced by the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. The blue dot indicates the approximate location of Opportunity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In 2007, a large storm covered the planet and darkened the skies over where the Opportunity rover was stationed – which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications. The most recent storm, which began back in May, has been less intense, but managed to create a state of perpetual night over Opportunity’s location in Perseverance Valley.

As a result, the Opportunity team placed the rover into hibernation mode and shut down communications in June 2018. Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity rover continues to explore the surface of Mars, thanks to its radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which does not rely on solar panels. By autumn, scientists expect the dust storm will weaken significantly, and are confident Opportunity will survive.

According to NASA, the dust storm will also not affect the landing of the InSight Lander, which is scheduled to take place on November 26th, 2018. In the meantime, this storm is being monitored by all five active ESA and NASA spacecraft around Mars, which includes the 2001 Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Mars Express, and the Exomars Trace Gas Orbiter.

Understanding how global storms form and evolve on Mars will be critical for future solar-powered missions. It will also come in handy when crewed missions are conducted to the planet, not to mention space tourism and colonization!

Further Reading: DLR

A Powerful Dust Storm Has Darkened the Skies Over Opportunity on Mars

NASA’s Opportunity mission can rightly be called the rover that just won’t quit. Originally, this robotic rover was only meant to operate on Mars for 90 Martian days (or sols), which works out to a little over 90 Earth days. However, since it made its landing on January 25th, 2004, it has remained in operation for 14 years, 4 months, and 18 days – exceeding its operating plan by a factor of 50!

However, a few weeks ago, NASA received disturbing news that potentially posed a threat to the “little rover that could”. A Martian storm, which has since grown to occupy an area larger than North America – 18 million km² (7 million mi²) – was blowing in over rover’s position in the Perseverance Valley. Luckily, NASA has since made contact with the rover, which is encouraging sign.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter first detected the storm on Friday, June 1st, and immediately notified the Opportunity team to begin preparing contingency plans. The storm quickly grew over the next few days and resulted in dust clouds that raised the atmosphere’s opacity, which blocked out most of the sunlight from reaching the surface. This is bad news for the rover since it relies on solar panels for power and to recharge its batteries.

Artist’s conception of a Mars Exploration Rover, which included Opportunity and Spirit. Credit: NASA

By Wednesday, June 6th, Opportunity’s power levels had dropped significantly and the rover was required to shift to minimal operations. But beyond merely limiting the rover’s operations, a prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be able to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running – which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars’ atmosphere.

The Martian cold is believed to be what resulted in the loss of the Spirit rover in 2010, Opportunity’s counterpart in the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Much like Opportunity, Spirit‘s mission as only meant to last for 90 days, but the rover managed to remain in operation for 2269 days (2208 sols) from start to finish. It’s also important to note that Opportunity has dealt with long-term storms before and emerged unscathed.

Back in 2007, a much larger storm covered the planet, which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications. However, the current storm has intensified as of Sunday morning (June 10th), creating a perpetual state of night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley and leading to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm.

Whereas the previous storm had an opacity level (tau) of about 5.5, this new storm has an estimated tau of 10.8. Luckily, NASA engineers received a transmission from the rover on Sunday, which was a positive indication since it proved that the rover still has enough battery charge to communicate with controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This latest transmission also showed that the rover’s temperature had reached about -29 °C (-20 °F).

This 30-day time-lapse of the Martian atmosphere was capture by Opportunity during the 2007 dust storm. That storm blocked out 99% of the Sun's energy, limiting the effectiveness of the rover's solar panels, and putting the mission in jeopardy. Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2475872
This 30-day time-lapse of the Martian atmosphere was capture by Opportunity during the 2007 dust storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Full dust storms like this and the one that took place in 2007 are rare, but not surprising. They occur during summer in the southern hemisphere, when sunlight warms dust particles and lifts them higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. That wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand. While they can begin suddenly, they tend to last on the order of weeks or even months.

A saving grace about these storms is that they limit the extreme temperature swings, and the dust they kick up can also absorb solar radiation, thus raising ambient temperatures around Opportunity. In the coming weeks, engineers at the JPL will continue to monitor the rover’s power levels and ensure that it maintains the proper balance to keep its batteries in working order.

In the meantime, Opportunity’s science operations remain suspended and the Opportunity team has requested additional communications coverage from NASA’s Deep Space Network – the global system of antennas that communicates with all of the agency’s deep space missions. And if there’s one thing Opportunity has proven, it is that it’s capable of enduring!

Fingers crossed the storm subsides as soon as possible and the little rover that could once again emerges unscathed. At this rate, it could have many more years of life left in it!

Further News: NASA

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Withstands Another Harsh Winter on Mars

When the Opportunity rover landed on Mars on January 25th, 2004, its mission was only meant to last for about 90 Earth days. But the little rover that could has exceeded all expectations by remaining in operation (as of the writing of this article) for a total of 13 years and 231 days and traveled a total of about 50 km (28 mi). Basically, Opportunity has continued to remain mobile and gather scientific data 50 times longer than its designated lifespan.

And according to a recent announcement from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP), the rover managed to survive yet another winter on Mars. Having endured the its eight Martian winter in a row, and with its solar panels in encouragingly clean condition, the rover will be in good shape for the coming dust-storm season. It also means the rover will live to see its 14th anniversary, which will take place on January 25th, 2018.

On Mars, a single year lasts the equivalent of 686.971 Earth days (or 1.88 Earth years). And since Mars’ axis is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of just over 23°), Mars also experiences seasons. However, these tend to last about twice as long as the seasons on Earth. And of course, the seasons on Mars’ are also much colder, with temperatures averaging about -63 °C (-82°F).

Enhanced-color view of ground sloping downward to the right in “Perseverance Valley”, taken by the Pancam on the Opportunity rover in October of 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

As Jennifer Herman, the power subsystem operations team lead for Opportunity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recalled in a NASA MEP press statement:

“I didn’t start working on this project until about Sol 300, and I was told not to get too settled in because Spirit and Opportunity probably wouldn’t make it through that first Martian winter. Now, Opportunity has made it through the worst part of its eighth Martian winter.”

At present, both the Opportunity and Spirit rover are in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Here, the Sun appears in the northern sky during the fall and winter, so the rovers need to tilt their solar-arrays northward. Back in 2004, the Spirit rover had lost the use of two of its wheels, and could therefore not maneuver out of a sand trap it had become stuck in. As such, it was unable to tilt itself northward and did not survive its fourth Martian winter (in 2009).

However, Opportunity’s current position – Perseverance Valley, a fluid-carved region on the inner slope at the edge of the Endeavour Crater – meant that it was well-positioned to keep working through late fall and early winter this year. This was ensured by the stops the rover made at energy-favorable locations, where it would inspect local rocks, examine the valley’s shape and image the surrounding area, all the while absorbing ample energy from the Sun.

Image of the floor of Endeavour Crater, taken by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity on Nov. 11th, 2017, about a week before Opportunity’s eighth Martian winter solstice. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

Five months ago, the rover entered the top of the valley, which runs eastward down the inner slope of the Endurance Crater’s western rim. Since that time, Opportunity has been conducting stops between drives at north-facing sites, which are situated along the southern edge of the channel. The rover team calls the sites “lily pads”, since these places are spots that the rover need to hop across during its mission.

This is necessary, given that Opportunity does not rely on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator like Curiosity does. While winter conditions affect the use of electrical heaters and batteries on both rovers, Opportunity is different in that it’s activities are more subject to seasonal change. Whereas Curiosity will simply allocate less energy to performing tasks in the winter, Opportunity needs to pick its routes to ensure it stays powered up.

During some of its previous winters, the Opportunity rover was not as well-situated as it currently is. During its fifth winter (2011-2012) the rover spent 19 weeks at one spot because no other places that allowed for a northward-facing tilt were available within driving distance. On the other hand, its first winter (2004-2005) was spent in the southern half of the Endurance Crater, where all grounds are favorable since they face north.

As the person who is chiefly responsible for advising other mission scientists on how much energy Opportunity has available on each Martian day (sol) for conducting activities like driving and observing – a task she performs for Curiosity as well – Herman understand the relationship between power usage and the seasons all too well. “Relying on solar energy for Opportunity keeps us constantly aware of the season on Mars and the terrain that the rover is on, more than for Curiosity,” she said.

A self-portrait of the Opportunity rover shortly after dust cleared its solar panels in March 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Another factor which can influence Opportunity‘s power supply is how much dust is in the sky and how much of it gets onto the rover’s solar arrays. This is highly-dependent on prevailing wind conditions, which can both stir up dust storms and clear away dust deposits on the rover – basically, they are a real mixed blessing! During autumn and winter in the southern-hemisphere, the skies are generally clear where Opportunity operates.

Spring and summer is when the storms are most common in Mars’ southern hemisphere, though they don’t happen every year. The latest example took place in 2007, which led to a severe reduction in the amount of sunlight (and hence, solar energy) Spirit and Opportunity were able to receive. This required both rovers to enact emergency protocols and reduce the amount of operations and communications they conducted.

The amount of dust on the rover’s solar arrays going into autumn can also vary from year to year. This year, the array was dustier than in all but one of the previous Martian autumns it experienced. Luckily, as Herman explained, things worked out for the rover:

“We were worried that the dust accumulation this winter would be similar to some of the worst winters we’ve had, and that we might come out of the winter with a very dusty array, but we’ve had some recent dust cleaning that was nice to see. Now I’m more optimistic. If Opportunity’s solar arrays keep getting cleaned as they have recently, she’ll be in a good position to survive a major dust storm. It’s been more than 10 Earth years since the last one and we need to be vigilant.”

Image of the Opportunity rover’s front wheel, taken on June 9th, 2004, inside the Endurance Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

In the coming months, the Opportunity team hopes to investigate how the Perseverance Valley was cut into the rim of the Endeavor crater. As Matt Golombek, an Opportunity Project Scientist at JPL, related:

“We have not been seeing anything screamingly diagnostic, in the valley itself, about how much water was involved in the flow. We may get good diagnostic clues from the deposits at the bottom of the valley, but we don’t want to be there yet, because that’s level ground with no more lily pads.”

With its eighth winter finished and Opportunity still in good working order, we can expect the tenacious rover to keep turning up interesting finds on Mars. These include clues about Mars’ warmer, wetter past, which likely included a standing body of water in the Endeavor crater. And assuming conditions are favorable in the coming year, we can expect that Opportunity will continue to push the boundaries of both science and its own endurance!

Further Reading: NASA

What is the Weather like on Mars?

Welcome back to our planetary weather series! Today, we take a look at Earth’s neighbor and possible “backup location” for humanity someday – Mars!

Mars is often referred to as “Earth’s Twin”, due to the similarities it has with our planet. They are both terrestrial planets, both have polar ice caps, and (at one time) both had viable atmospheres and liquid water on their surfaces. But beyond that, the two are quite different. And when it comes to their atmospheres and climates, Mars stands apart from Earth in some rather profound ways.

For instance, when it comes to the weather on Mars, the forecast is usually quite dramatic. Not only does Martian weather vary from day to day, it sometimes varies from hour to hour. That seems a bit unusual for a planet that has an atmosphere that is only 1% as dense as the Earth’s. And yet, Mars manages to really up the ante when it comes to extreme weather and meteorological phenomena.

Mars’ Atmosphere:

Mars has a very thin atmosphere which is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen, along with traces of oxygen and water. The atmosphere is quite dusty, containing particulates that measure 1.5 micrometers in diameter, which is what gives the Martian sky its tawny color when seen from the surface. Mars’ atmospheric pressure ranges from 0.4 to 0.87 kPa, which is the equivalent of about 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

This image illustrates possible ways methane might get into Mars’ atmosphere and also be removed from it. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan

Because of this thin atmosphere, and its greater distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Mars is much colder than what we experience here on Earth. The planet’s average temperature is -63 °C (-82 °F), with a low of -143 °C (-226 °F) during the winter at the poles, and a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator.

Due to the extreme lows in temperature at the poles, 25-30% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freezes and becomes dry ice that is deposited on the surface. While the polar ice caps are predominantly water, the Martian North Pole has a layer of dry ice measuring one meter thick in winter, while the South Pole is covered by a permanent layer that is eight meters deep.

Trace amounts of methane and ammonia have also been detected in the Martian atmosphere. In the case of the former, it has an estimated concentration of about 30 parts per billion (ppb), though the Curiosity rover detected a “tenfold spike” on December 16th, 2014. This detection was likely localized, and the source remains a mystery. Similarly, the source of ammonia is unclear, though volcanic activity has been suggested as a possibility.

Meteorological Phenomena:

Mars is also famous for its intense dust storms, which can range from small tornadoes to planet-wide phenomena. Instances of the latter coincide with dust being blown into the atmosphere, causing it to be heated up from the Sun. The warmer dust-filled air rises and the winds get stronger, creating storms that can measure up to thousands of kilometers in width and last for months at a time. When they get this large, they can actually block most of the surface from view.

Image capturing an active dust storm on Mars. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Due to its thin atmosphere, low temperatures and lack of a magnetosphere, liquid precipitation (i.e. rain) does not take place on Mars. Basically, solar radiation would cause any liquid water in the atmosphere to disassociate into hydrogen and oxygen. And because of the cold and thin atmosphere, there is simply not enough liquid water on the surface to maintain a water cycle.

Occasionally, however, thin clouds do form in the atmosphere and precipitation falls in the form of snow. This consists primarily of carbon dioxide snow, which has been observed in the polar regions. However, small traces of frozen clouds carrying water have also been observed in Mars’ upper atmosphere in the past, producing snow that is restricted to high altitudes.

One such instance was observed on September 29th, 2008, when the Phoenix lander took pictures of snow falling from clouds that were 4 km (2.5 mi) above its landing site near the Heimdal Crater. However, data collected from the lander indicated that the precipitation vaporized before it could reach the ground.

Aurorae on Mars:

Auroras have also been detected on Mars, which are also the result of interaction between magnetic fields and solar radiation. While Mars has little magnetosphere to speak of, scientists determined that aurorae observed in the past corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized on the planet. This was concluded by analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor.

Mars has magnetized rocks in its crust that create localized, patchy magnetic fields (left). In the illustration at right, we see how those fields extend into space above the rocks. At their tops, auroras can form. Credit: NASA

A notable example is the one that took place on August 14th, 2004, and which was spotted by the SPICAM instrument aboard the Mars Express. This aurora was located in the skies above Terra Cimmeria – at geographic coordinates 177° East, 52° South – and was estimated to be quite sizable, measuring 30 km across and 8 km high (18.5 miles across and 5 miles high).

More recently, an aurora was observed on Mars by the MAVEN mission, which captured images of the event on March 17th, 2015, just a day after an aurora was observed here on Earth. Nicknamed Mars’ “Christmas lights”, they were observed across the planet’s mid-northern latitudes and (owing to the lack of oxygen and nitrogen in Mars’ atmosphere) were likely a faint glow compared to Earth’s more vibrant display.

To date, Mars’ atmosphere, climate and weather patterns have been studied by dozens of orbiters, landers, and rovers, consisting of missions by NASA, Roscomos, as well as the European Space Agency and Indian federal space program. These include the Mariner 4 probe, which conducted the first flyby of Mars – a two-day operation that took place between July 14th and 15th, 1965.

The crude data it obtained was expanded on by the later later Mariner 6 and 7 missions (which conducted flybys in 1969). This was followed by the Viking 1 and 2 missions, which reached Mars in 1976 and became the first spacecraft to land on the planet and send back images of the surfaces.

Since the turn of the century, six orbiters have been placed in orbit around Mars to gather information on its atmosphere – 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Orbiter Mission and ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. These have been complimented by rover and lander missions like Pheonix, Spirit and Opportunity, and Curiosity.

In the future, several additional missions are scheduled to reach the Red Planet, which are expected to teach us even more about its atmosphere, climate and weather patterns. What we find will reveal much about the planet’s deep past, its present condition, and perhaps even help us to build a future there.

We have written many interesting articles about Martian weather here at Universe Today. Here’s Mars Compared to Earth, It Only Happens on Mars: Carbon Dioxide Snow is Falling on the Red Planet, Snow is Falling from Martian Clouds, Surprise! Mars has Auroras Too! and NASA’s MAVEN Orbiter Discovers Solar Wind Stripped Away Mars Atmosphere Causing Radical Transformation.

For more information, check out this NASA article about how space weather affects Mars.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

Sources:

The Orbit of Mars. How Long is a Year on Mars?

Mars and Earth have quite a few things in common. Both are terrestrial planets, both are located within the Sun’s habitable zone, both have polar ice caps, similarly tilted axes, and similar variations in temperature. And according to some of the latest scientific data obtained by rovers and atmospheric probes, it is now known that Mars once had a dense atmosphere and was covered with warm, flowing water.

But when it comes to things like the length of a year, and the length of seasons, Mars and Earth are quite different. Compared to Earth, a year on Mars lasts almost twice as long – 686.98 Earth days. This is due to the fact that Mars is significantly farther from the Sun and its orbital period (the time it takes to orbit the Sun) is significantly greater than that of Earth’s.

Orbital Period:

Mars average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 227,939,200 km (141,634,852.46 mi) which is roughly one and half times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (1.52 AU). Compared to Earth, its orbit is also rather eccentric (0.0934 vs. 0.0167), ranging from 206.7 million km (128,437,425.435 mi; 1.3814 AU) at perihelion to 249.2 million km (154,845,701 mi; 1.666 AU) at aphelion. At this distance, and with an orbital speed of 24.077 km/s, Mars takes 686.971 Earth days, the equivalent of 1.88 Earth years, to complete a orbit around the Sun.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA

This eccentricity is one of the most pronounced in the Solar System, with only Mercury having a greater one (0.205). However, this wasn’t always the case. Roughly 1.35 million years ago, Mars had an eccentricity of just 0.002, making its orbit nearly circular. It reached a minimum eccentricity of 0.079 some 19,000 years ago, and will peak at about 0.105 in about 24,000 years from now.

But for the last 35,000 years, the orbit of Mars has been getting slightly more eccentric because of the gravitational effects of the other planets. The closest distance between Earth and Mars will continue to mildly decrease for the next 25,000 years. And in about 1,000,000 years from now, its eccentricity will once again be close to what it is now – with an estimated eccentricity of 0.01.

Earth Days vs. Martian “Sols”:

Whereas a year on Mars is significantly longer than a year on Earth, the difference between an day on Earth and a Martian day (aka. “Sol”) is not significant. For starters, Mars takes 24 hours 37 minutes and 22 seconds to complete a single rotation on its axis (aka. a sidereal day), where Earth takes just slightly less (23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds).

On the other hand, it takes 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds for the Sun to appear in the same spot in the sky above Mars (aka. a solar day), compared to the 24 hour solar day we experience here on Earth. This means that, based on the length of a Martian day, a Martian year works out to 668.5991 Sols.

The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun's movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU
The Opportunity rover captured this analemma showing the Sun’s movements over one Martian year. Images taken every third sol (Martian day) between July, 16, 2006 and June 2, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/TAMU

Seasonal Variations:

Mars also has a seasonal cycle that is similar to that of Earth’s. This is due in part to the fact that Mars also has a tilted axis, which is inclined 25.19° to its orbital plane (compared to Earth’s axial tilt of approx. 23.44°). It’s also due to Mars orbital eccentricity, which means it will periodically receive less in the way of the Sun’s radiance during at one time of the year than another. This change in distance causes significant variations in temperature.

While the planet’s average temperature is -46 °C (51 °F), this ranges from a low of -143 °C (-225.4 °F) during the winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) during summer and midday at the equator. This works out to a variation in average surface temperature that is quite similar to Earth’s – a difference of 178 °C (320.4 °F) versus 145.9 °C (262.5 °F). This high in temperatures is also what allows for liquid water to still flow (albeit intermittently) on the surface of Mars.

In addition, Mars’ eccentricity means that it travels more slowly in its orbit when it is further from the Sun, and more quickly when it is closer (as stated in Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion). Mars’ aphelion coincides with Spring in its northern hemisphere, which makes it the longest season on the planet – lasting roughly 7 Earth months. Summer is second longest, lasting six months, while Fall and Winter last 5.3 and just over 4 months, respectively.

Artist's impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit: britannica.com
Artist’s impression of the seasons on Mars. Credit: britannica.com

In the south, the length of the seasons is only slightly different. Mars is near perihelion when it is summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north, and near aphelion when it is winter in the southern hemisphere and summer in the north. As a result, the seasons in the southern hemisphere are more extreme and the seasons in the northern are milder. The summer temperatures in the south can be up to 30 K (30 °C; 54 °F) warmer than the equivalent summer temperatures in the north.

Weather Patterns:

These seasonal variations allow Mars to experience some extremes in weather. Most notably, Mars has the largest dust storms in the Solar System. These can vary from a storm over a small area to gigantic storms (thousands of km in diameter) that cover the entire planet and obscure the surface from view. They tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and have been shown to increase the global temperature.

The first mission to notice this was the Mariner 9 orbiter, which was the first spacecraft to orbit Mars in 1971, it sent pictures back to Earth of a world consumed in haze. The entire planet was covered by a dust storm so massive that only Olympus Mons, the giant Martian volcano that measures 24 km high, could be seen above the clouds. This storm lasted for a full month, and delayed Mariner 9‘s attempts to photograph the planet in detail.

And then on June 9th, 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a dust storm in the Hellas Basin on Mars. By July, the storm had died down, but then grew again to become the largest storm in 25 years. So big was the storm that amateur astronomers using small telescopes were able to see it from Earth. And the cloud raised the temperature of the frigid Martian atmosphere by a stunning 30° Celsius.

These storms tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and are the result of temperatures rising and triggering changes in the air and soil. As the soil dries, it becomes more easily picked up by air currents, which are caused by pressure changes due to increased heat. The dust storms cause temperatures to rise even further, leading to Mars’ experiencing its own greenhouse effect.

Given the differences in seasons and day length, one is left to wonder if a standard Martian calendar could ever be developed. In truth, it could, but it would be a bit of a challenge. For one, a Martian calendar would have to account for Mars’ peculiar astronomical cycles, and our own non-astronomical cycles like the 7-day week work with them.

Another consideration in designing a calendar is accounting for the fractional number of days in a year. Earth’s year is 365.24219 days long, and so calendar years contain either 365 or 366 days accordingly. Such a formula would need to be developed to account for the 668.5921-sol Martian year. All of this will certainly become an issue as human beings become more and more committed to exploring (and perhaps colonizing) the Red Planet.

We have written many interesting articles about Mars here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Venus?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, How Long is a Year on Neptune?, How Long is a Year on Pluto?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Mars.

Astronomy Cast also has several interesting episodes on the subject. Like Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

India’s MOM Snaps Spectacular Portrait of New Home – the Red Planet

MOM is truly something special.

For her latest eye popping feat, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has snapped the first global portrait of her new Home – the Red Planet.

MOM is India’s first interplanetary voyager and took the stupendous new image on Sept. 28, barely four days after her historic arrival on Sept. 23/24 following the successful Mars Orbital Insertion (MOI) braking maneuver.

The MOM orbiter was designed and developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency, which released the image on Sept. 29.

Even more impressive is that MOM’s Martian portrait shows a dramatic view of a huge dust storm swirling over a large patch of the planet’s Northern Hemisphere against the blackness of space. Luckily, NASA’s Opportunity and Curiosity surface rovers are nowhere nearby.

“Something’s brewing here!” ISRO tweeted.

The southern polar ice cap is also clearly visible.

It was taken by the probe’s on-board Mars Color Camera from a very high altitude of 74,500 kilometers.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. . Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures the limb of Mars with the Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 8449 km soon after achieving orbit on Sept. 23/24, 2014. Credit: ISRO

When MOM met Mars, the thrusters placed the probe into a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km. The inclination of the orbit with respect to the equatorial plane of Mars is 150 degrees, as intended, ISRO reported.

So the Red Planet portrait was captured nearly at apoapsis.

This is the third MOM image released by ISRO thus far, and my personal favorite. And its very reminiscent of whole globe Mars shots taken by Hubble.

MOM’s goal is to study Mars’ atmosphere, surface environments, morphology, and mineralogy with a 15 kg (33 lb) suite of five indigenously built science instruments. It will also sniff for methane, a potential marker for biological activity.

The $73 million mission is expected to last at least six months.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21 and could last 10 years or more.

With MOM’s arrival, India became the newest member of an elite club of only four entities who have launched probes that successfully investigated Mars – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Mars Dust Storm Likely Not Going Global

A regional dust storm visible in the southern hemisphere of Mars in this nearly global mosaic of observations made by the Mars Color Imager on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 25, 2012, has contracted from its size a week earlier. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Good news for the spacecraft sitting on or orbiting Mars: a dust storm on the Red Planet that looked as though it could spread around the entire planet now appears to be abating rather than going global, NASA says.

“During the past week, the regional storm weakened and contracted significantly,” said Bruce Cantor of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego. Cantor uses the Mars Color Imager camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to monitor storms on the Red Planet.

Recent images and data from the Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) on the Curiosity rover have also shown a hazy atmosphere and air pressure changes in the vicinity of Gale Crater.

Part of gigantic panorama from Curiosity, showing an increasingly hazy view off in the distance, likely because of a dust storm. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSS, with image editing by Stuart Atkinson. See the full panorama here.

“We are getting lots of good data about this storm,” said Mark Richardson of Ashima Research, Pasadena, California, a co-investigator both on REMS and on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Mars Climate Sounder instrument, which has been detecting widespread effects of the current storm on atmospheric temperatures.

Here’s a look at the growing dust storm from the Mars Color Imager on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 18, 2012 to compare with the lead image:

Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Researchers anticipate that the unprecedented combination of a near-equatorial weather station at ground level, and daily orbital observations during Mars’ dust-storm season, may provide information about why some dust storms grow larger than others.

This is good information to have for any potential future human visitors to Mars.

Source: JPL

HiRISE Clocks Hurricane Speed Winds In Martian Dust Devils

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“It’s early morning and the Sun comes out…” And from no where a huge Martian dust devil shakes its way across the red sands, flinging debris up into the atmosphere. While planetary scientists have been able to determine how fast these whirling, swirling storms travel across the arid landscape, they’ve never quite been able to tell just how fast the winds within them move. Until now…

Thanks to the work of David Choi, a postdoc at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, we’re now able to reasonably record wind speeds through the use of high resolution images taken from HiRISE onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. When lucky, the camera captures the storms as a “work in progress” – detailing small features. By pinpointing these signature marks, Choi was able to determine the wind speeds by knowing the timing between frames.

According to the news release, the winds are traveling at about 45 meters each second — what we Earthlings would consider “hurricane-force,” or above 33 meters per second. However, at other times the winds would slow to between 20 and 30 meters per second. These new findings were then compiled and Choi presented his results October 3 in Nantes, France, at the joint meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.

“As a whole, they’re not like a hurricane, but there are pockets or gusts that exceed hurricane-force,” Choi says.

These storms generally appeared around 3:00 Mars Local Time and measured about 30 meters to 250 meters in diameter, and stretched upwards between 150 meters and 700 meters. Wow… “Here I am… Rock you like a hurricane!”

Original Story Source: Science News Release.