20 June 2018

Sols 2088-2089: A Dusty Day on Mars

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Over the past week or so, Curiosity has experienced increasingly dusty conditions in Gale crater. Unlike her older cousin Opportunity on the other side of the planet, Curiosity is not solar powered and, therefore, doesn’t suffer from the same power issues resulting from the darkening skies that Opportunity does. That allows Curiosity to play more of an active role in monitoring this dust storm from the ground and collecting important information to help scientists understand the evolution of such a weather phenomenon.

After an unexpectedly short drive on Sol 2086 due to some ‘slippery’ ground conditions, we again had a very short drive in the Sol 2087 plan due to additional wheel slippage. In fact, Curiosity only recorded a drive of 17 millimeters, or about half an inch! Needless to say, the landscape today looks pretty similar to the landscape we saw yesterday…

The science team did a great job in taking advantage of this familiar landscape by planning several new measurements. ChemCam will use its LIBS capabilities to analyze targets named ‘Beaver Bay,’ ‘Moose Mountain,’ and ‘Breakwater,’ while Mastcam and Navcam will dedicate their efforts primarily towards documenting these ChemCam targets and making environmental observations. The plan is to then drive away from this location heading south back up the Vera Rubin Ridge. Following the drive, we will make some additional environmental measurements and acquire our standard post-drive observations in preparation for our next day of planning on Friday.

One really cool observation that will be made in today’s science plan is a ChemCam LIBS observation of… well… THIN AIR! The idea is to target the ChemCam laser into the dusty martian air. By observing the amount of dispersion of the laser pulse, the team will be able to make some really cool observations and estimations of atmospheric dust abundances. This is equivalent to shining a laser pointer into the sky during a foggy day, or in a dusty classroom. It’s a new tool available to Curiosity thanks to some really ingenious planning by the scientists and engineers, and today is the first day that we will make this observation, so stay tuned!

Like overcast days here on Earth, there are very few shadows currently observed in Gale crater when the sun is overhead. The red martian dust in the atmosphere is scattering nearly all observed sunlight, creating dim and diffuse conditions. Check out the differences between these Mastcam images of the Duluth drill hole on Sol 2078 and Sol 2084. It’s clear that the amount of color contrast has decreased significantly as the air has become redder and sunlight is scattered more and more. We’ll continue to monitor the amount of atmospheric scattering as the dust storm evolves over the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

Written by Dr. Mark Salvatore, Planetary Geologist at University of Michigan