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News Release 6 of 20

October 11, 2001 01:00 PM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2001-31

Scientists Track "Perfect Storm" on Mars

A Space Science Update Release

October 11, 2001: A pair of eagle-eyed NASA spacecraft — the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Hubble Space Telescope — are giving amazed astronomers a ringside seat to the biggest global dust storm seen on Mars in several decades. The Martian dust storm, larger by far than any seen on Earth, has raised a cloud of dust that has engulfed the entire planet for several months.

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Q & A: Understanding the Discovery

  1. 1. What does the Mars Global Surveyor optical camera reveal about this storm?

  2. Though global storms on Mars have been seen before, astronomers never had such a detailed look at how storms start and "blossom" across the orange, arid planet. Planetary scientists photograph the entire surface of Mars every day using the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) aboard the orbiting spacecraft Mars Global Surveyor (MGS). MGS caught the storm erupting in late June 2001, which was unusually early in the Martian Northern Hemisphere spring, compared to previous large storms. Scientists were then able to pinpoint the actual location of places where dust was being raised, see it migrate, and interact with other Martian weather phenomena and surface topography.

  3. 2. What does the Mars Global Surveyor thermal detector reveal?

  4. MGS' Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) has tracked the blooming dust storm by measuring temperature changes that trace the amount and location of dust in the atmosphere. The swirling storm has raised the upper atmospheric temperature by about 80 degrees Fahrenheit as the Sun warms the airborne dust — bringing an abrupt onset of global warming to the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. At the same time, the surface has chilled to a cloudy and gloomy landscape under the constant dust shroud. Study of the monstrous storm may yield invaluable new insights into the behavior of Earth's climate changes, which trigger global atmospheric events like El Nino, (the warm-water Pacific Ocean phenomenon that can have far-reaching effects) and also intense hurricane seasons.

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Credit: NASA, James Bell (Cornell Univ.), Michael Wolff (Space Science Inst.), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)