Tucson - June 4, 2001
A University of Arizona-led international team of 20 space scientists and engineers this week are conducting an ambitious field test of equipment to study dust devils swirling over the Santa Cruz flats near Eloy, Ariz.
The "Matador" experiment, led by Peter Smith of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and funded by NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space enterprise, will help define instruments needed for studying much larger dust devils on Mars later in this decade, possibly in 2007.
Mars dust is a major potential threat to both robotic and human exploration of the Red Planet. Enormous martian dust devils - 100 times larger than those on Earth -- churning tons of electrically charged dust particles could cause lightning bolts and discharges that might fry computers and delicate electronics, interfere with radio communications, or rip apart pressurized human habitat.
Earth dust devils can be 10 meters to 20 meters in diameter and 1,000 meters (a kilometer or six-tenths of a mile) high, Smith said. Mars dust devils are typically a kilometer in diameter and 10 kilometers (6 miles) high. Martian dust devils are so big that they dust the planet's atmosphere, giving the atmosphere its reddish-brown hue, and so big that Mars Global Surveyor cameras have photographed them from orbit.
Smith, whose Imager for Mars Pathfinder camera returned a trove of famous photos from the surface of Mars where it landed July 4, 1997, was among a group of scientists who recently briefed the National Research Council on hazards to humans on Mars. He also is co-investigator for Beagle 2, the lander part of the 2003 "Mars Express" mission, Europe's first mission to the Red Planet.
"We are going to get experience in measuring the physical and electrical properties of dust devils," Smith said. "We want practice tracking dust devils with LIDAR. And we may find that we'll need to make measurements that we haven't thought about yet."
Starting today (June 4), the Matador team will conduct daily operations near plowed but uncultivated agricultural fields in desert near Eloy. Using LIDAR at their fixed station, researchers will track speed and direction of the moving dust storms, then drive their instrument-laden pickup "mobile station" into the paths of any dust devils they can intercept. Video crews in another vehicle and at the fixed station will record dust devils as they hit the instruments deployed from the pickup.
Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
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Mars Global Surveyor Captures Dust Storms
Pasadena - June 4, 2001
Daily global maps, created with images from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, provide a moving picture of Martian weather during 1999-2000 similar to the familiar satellite weather maps we see of Earth.
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