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Things were looking up for atmospheric scientists today. The dark
storm clouds seen to the east in this color panorama did not end up
threatening the FIDO rover, although nervous scientists continue to watch
the weather. Fortunately, thunderstorms will not be a problem in
Mars' thin, dry atmosphere. "It's been a while…millions of years, in
fact… since flash floods have hit the canyons of Mars," says
Texas A&M's atmospheric scientist Mark Lemmon.
The storms did bring high winds to the area of the FIDO desert test
site. The lighter clouds just above the ridge are clouds of dust raised by
high winds. On Mars, atmospheric scientists will focus much of their
attention in studying the way dust gets raised into the atmosphere, what
it is like while in the atmosphere, and how it falls back to the surface. It
is unknown how Mars' great dust storms start, or what keeps some dust
in the thin martian atmosphere at all times. Gusts of wind raise the dust
into the sky. In addition, great swirling martian dust devils have been
seen from orbit and by Mars Pathfinder. FIDO scientists have not gotten
pictures of more down-to-Earth dust devils at this site yet. "We're
still looking, since we know dust devils are common in deserts like
this one," says Geoffrey Landis from NASA's Glenn Research Center.
An understanding of martian dust will help scientists and engineers
better design future missions to Mars. As a solar cell scientist, Geoffrey
Landis studies how the dust settles on solar panels to predict how long
rovers can operate. Dust accumulates on the solar panels of rovers,
blocking light and energy, causing the rover to lose power over the
course of the mission.
Dust will deposit on solar cells, and it will deposit on everything else,
too. If the fine, butterscotch-colored dust accumulates on future
astronauts' spacesuits, it could cause problems when they come inside
from working outdoors. "You don't want to breathe in all that
dust," says Geoffrey. Working on advanced concepts for future
Mars missions, Geoffrey has thought extensively about how to combat the
problems of dust. Geoffrey has also written a science fiction novel,
Mars Crossing, all about a future mission to Mars. "In the story,
everything goes wrong -- something that we prefer not to experience in
our real rover mission!"