Earlier this year, a fleet of NASA’s orbiters, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to get a detailed look at the life cycle of the global dust storms on Mars, which ultimately brought the Opportunity Rover’s mission to an end. The data gathered by these orbiters gave NASA scientists a chance to study the strange, massive dust storms, or ‘dust towers’ that take place every few decades.
Dust towers on Mars are very similar to dust tornado’s on Earth, just on a much larger scale. NASA describes them as ‘huge towers of churning clouds’ full of dust that has the ability to reach heights ordinary dust would never reach. As a matter of fact, the dust towers that occurred in 2018 were so large, sunlight was unable to reach NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover, which subsequently ended its 15 year-long mission.
Credit: NASA- The yellow-white cloud in the bottom-center of this image is a Mars “dust tower”
By analysing the data sent to them from orbiters surrounding the big red planet, NASA was able to determine that dust towers are created when large areas of dust (the size of Rhode Island in the US) get lifted up into the atmosphere. The martian dust then grows into a tower that can reach up to 80 kilometers in height. According to NASA, when the tower eventually falls apart, the resulting dust layer could span a distance equal to that of the United States. NASA was left baffled with last year’s dust towers, as some of them had a lifespan of more than three weeks.
“Global dust storms are really unusual,” says Mars Climate Sounder scientist David Kass of JPL. “We really don’t have anything like this on the Earth, where the entire planet’s weather changes for several months.”
Feature image: NASA.gov