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Watch the colossal Martian dust storm swallow the planet, and Opportunity along with it

Published Jun 15th, 2018 12:28PM EDT
mars dust storm video
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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By now you’ve surely heard about the massive dust storm currently raging on Mars. Our planetary neighbor is experiencing a pretty serious bout of cloudy skies thanks to raging winds which have kicked up the orange soil and tossed it aloft. NASA’s Opportunity rover is caught right in the middle of it all, and while we’ve seen some examples of how day has turned to night as the storm swallows up an ever-growing chunk of the planet, seeing the storm grow from space is a whole different story.

A new animation released from NASA compiles several images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter into a time-lapse of sorts. The composite photos reveal just how large the storm has gotten, and also shows how quickly the Opportunity rover was engulfed.

It’s some pretty stunning imagery, and the contrast between the fresh orange Martian dust and the more pale surface makes it all very easy to see. It’s neat to see from a casual observer’s perspective, but the storm is equally awesome for scientists, despite the troubles it’s causing for Opportunity.

“This is the ideal storm for Mars science,” Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, explains. “We have a historic number of spacecraft operating at the Red Planet. Each offers a unique look at how dust storms form and behave — knowledge that will be essential for future robotic and human missions.”

The storm is certainly a momentous event, but it’s not entirely unprecedented. Scientists have observed similar storms on the Red Planet in the past, and some of them have been even more widespread than what we are currently seeing. As NASA explains, one such storm back in 1971 covered nearly the entire planet, with only the peaks of some Martian volcanos peeking through the thick dust clouds.

NASA expects the storm to continue to rage for days or perhaps longer, and once the skies clear we’ll finally find out what kind of status Opportunity is in. The rover is quite old by NASA standards, approaching its 15th year. It was originally only intended to be used for 90 days, but it has received several mission extensions thanks to its impressive longevity.