Large Mars Dust Storm is Brewing

This nearly global mosaic of observations made by the Mars Color Imager on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 18, 2012, shows a dust storm in Mars' southern hemisphere.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As a Mars satellite tracks the evolution of a regional dust storm, NASA's rovers experience local weather changes.

A NASA spacecraft is keeping tabs on a vast dust storm on Mars that has spawned changes in the Martian atmosphere felt by two rovers on the planet's surface.

The Martian dust storm was first spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on Nov. 10 and has been tracked ever since. The agency's Mars rover Opportunity has seen a slight drop in atmospheric clarity due to the storm. Meanwhile the newer Curiosity rover -- which has a built-in weather station -- has seen a drop in air pressure and slightly increased nighttime temperatures halfway around the planet from Opportunity, NASA officials said.

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"This is now a regional dust storm," Rich Zurek, NASA's chief Mars scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement Wednesday (Nov. 21). "It has covered a fairly extensive region with its dust haze and it is in a part of the planet were some regional storms have grown into global dust hazes."

NASA is combining observations by the Curiosity rover and MRO to create a complete picture of the Martian dust storm. The Spain-built Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on Curiosity gives scientists a real-time look at conditions over the rover's position inside Gale Crater.

The Mars Color Imager on MRO was built by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego. It was Malin's Bruce Cantor who first spotted the storm in photos from the powerful Mars camera on Nov. 10.

"For the first time since the Viking missions of the 1970s, we are studying a regional dust storm both from orbit and with a weather station on the surface," Zurek said.

Because the dust from the current storm is absorbing sunlight instead of reflecting it, a warming effect 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the Martian tempest has been seen by MRO. The effect, first recorded by MRO's Mars Climate Sounder on Nov. 16, has led to a temperature increase of 45 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) so far.