“I told him to finish well. He doesn’t listen at all.”
Mars is known as the “Red Planet,” but it’s even more crimson as of late. The massive dust storm that has fully enveloped the planet is obscuring the Sun and bathing the landscape in a deep shade of blood red.
NASA’s two rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, have had to deal with the dust storm in their own specific ways. Opportunity shut down due to lack of power and we still don’t know what kind of shape it’s going to be in when the skies finally clear, and while Curiosity’s nuclear power source allows it to continue to work even in the dark, it’s dealing with some serious visibility issues due to the debris in the air.
A newly released photo from the Curiosity rover shows just how dramatic the change in light has become. Just check out these two side-by-side shots of the exact same rock. The photo on the left was taken on May 21st and the one on the right was snapped on June 17th:
“Two images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity rover depicting the change in the color of light illuminating the Martian surface since a dust storm engulfed Gale Crater,” NASA explains of the photos. “The cherry red color is due to red dust grains in the atmosphere letting red light through to the surface, but not green or blue, and to different exposure times for the two images.”
Along with this new comparison photo, NASA released an awesome animated image showing what Curiosity saw as the dust storm approached its current location. The sky growing orange and the distant mountains fading from view is definitely spooky.
It’s hard to overstate the size of the current weather event currently happening on Mars. The storm is gigantic, and it’s like nothing Earth has ever produced.
“Though they are common, Martian dust storms typically stay contained to a local area,” NASA writes. “By contrast, the current storm, if it were happening on Earth, would cover the area of North America and Russia combined.”
We’ll have to wait and see how long it lasts, but in the meantime the Martian surface will be bathed in darkness and, it seems, a crimson hue.
Here’s how NASA is going to use the International Space Station to see how stressed out Earth’s plants are
Determining the health of any given plant can often be accomplished simply by examining it, but gauging the overall wellbeing of plants over a large area is a much more challenging task. To help scientists get a better idea of how healthy plants are on a massive scale, NASA is installing a fancy new tool on the International Space Station. The instrument is called ECOSTRESS (which stands for ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station, in case you were wondering), and it might even help predict droughts.
The tool is expected to launch to the International Space Station on June 29th, aboard a SpaceX cargo resupply ship, at which point it will be unpackaged and installed on the station’s exterior. Once installed, it will gaze towards Earth and take detailed readings of the temperature of plant life. Those temperature readings, NASA says, are an important indicator for how well plants are doing.
“ECOSTRESS will allow us to monitor rapid changes in crop stress at the field level, enabling earlier and more accurate estimates of how yields will be impacted,” Martha Anderson, a member of the ECOSTRESS science team, explains in a NASA article. “Even short-term moisture stress, if it occurs during a critical stage of crop growth, can significantly impact productivity.”
The data will give experts a better idea of how much water crops are using over various periods of time. When plants begin to show signs of water stress they will appear warmer, and that information could be relayed to farmers and others in the agriculture community as an early warning of trouble.
“As water resources become more critical for our growing population, we need to track precisely how much water our crops need,” Josh Fisher of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and ECOSTRESS science lead, explains. “We need to know when plants are becoming susceptible to droughts, and we need to know which parts of the ecosystem are more vulnerable because of water stress.”
NASA says the ECOSTRESS instrument can pull double-duty by observing heat trends over large areas and even tracking the development of wildfires or volcanic activity.
The colossal dust storm on Mars that has already enveloped the Curiosity rover is now a planet-wide event. In a new bulletin, NASA explains that the dust storm has finally managed to make it around the entire planet, producing a haze in the atmosphere that obscures sunlight and offers scientists a great opportunity to study how weather on Mars works.
The Opportunity rover, which is powered by solar panels and a rechargeable battery, has been in a low-power standby mode ever since the dust storm blocked out enough sunlight to prevent the rover from functioning normally. NASA’s other rover, Curiosity, is working just fine, however. Unlike Opportunity, Curiosity is nuclear powered and doesn’t require sunlight to function. That’s why it’s been snapping selfies while Opportunity sleeps.
This isn’t the first large dust storm to be observed on Mars. A similar event occurred back in 2007, obscuring almost the entire planet aside from the peak of some Martian mountains. However, this is the first time Curiosity has been on Mars to observe such a storm, and scientists are gathering as much information as possible to help future forecasting efforts.
The storm’s intensity — how much dust and debris is in the air — it’s uniform across the planet, and some areas are darker than others. As NASA previously stated, the skies above Opportunity are essentially night, while Curiosity still has a bit of light with which to navigate and look around.
Dust storms on Mars have been notoriously hard to predict, both in their development and their longevity. Some storms die out quickly while others drag on for months, and researchers are hopeful that the new data being gathered currently will offer hints. Still, NASA has little idea of exactly when the current storm will eventually calm, and for the time being it just has to deal with the lack of light and fine debris.
We’ll still have to wait and see what condition Opportunity is in when it finally wakes back up, and whether the skies above Curiosity eventually reach the same levels of darkness that its fellow rover has experienced. In the meantime, NASA will continue to gather information on the storm and hopefully learn a thing or two.
Thanks to the steady stream of new asteroid discoveries that rolls out of NASA and other skywatching groups around the world you might think that any object that threatens Earth will be spotted well in advance. Unfortunately that’s only half true. NASA estimates that it’s spotted around 95% of the space rocks that could cause a full-on global apocalypse, but there are still many smaller objects that are lurking in the shadows.
These smaller rocks might not be true “planet killers,” but they could still cause some serious damage if they end up on a collision course with the Earth. Now, NASA has published a new paper that explains how it plans to account for these potentially dangerous objects.
This “near-earth object preparedness plan” (PDF here) explains how NASA will coordinate with other agencies to detect and track the presence of near-Earth objects. The plan, which NASA says will be a decade-long effort to ensure that scientists have the right approach to dealing with threats from space.
“NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation Program funds asteroid detection and tracking efforts at observatories across the U.S. and in space, and collaborates with other observatories around the world,” NASA writes in a new article. “NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, maps and publishes the orbits of all detected objects so that everyone can understand the potential risk. NASA also is studying approaches for deflecting (turning aside) or disrupting (breaking up) asteroids.”
At the moment, if we spotted a dangerous space rock headed for Earth on the short term there would be very little we could do to alter our fate. If an asteroid was due to arrive in days, weeks, or even a few months, we would be largely helpless. NASA’s new plan aims to change that, creating a framework in which scientists can relay information and groups like NASA can deploy pre-built countermeasures that could save countless lives.
“By completing the action plan, NASA and several other departments and agencies will evaluate and begin development of various approaches and technologies for defending Earth from a significant impact,” NASA says. Let’s just hope our luck holds out until NASA’s plans come to fruition.