Emirates Mars Mission Tracks Martian Dust Storms

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     The Emirates Mars Mission, the first interplanetary exploration undertaken by an Arab nation, is returning a number of unique observations of Martian dust storms, providing unparalleled depth of information and insight into the way in which these storms evolve and spread across huge swathes of the planet.

    Hope provides a powerful platform to observe details of the structure and variability of the Martian atmosphere.  Coordinated observations made by the EXI camera and the EMIRS infrared spectrometer characterize the thermal state of the surface and lower atmosphere, and provide details of the geographic distribution of dust, water vapor, and water and carbon-dioxide ice clouds over time scales of minutes to days. 

    The EXI camera system collects images at three visible and two ultraviolet wavelengths – providing a multispectral “weather satellite view” of Mars.  The color composites presented here are assembled from images taken through EXI’s blue, green, and red filters (centered at 437, 546, and 635 nanometers).   These images are “calibrated” products which have removed many of the artifacts introduced by the camera system and also provide the observation geometry information to allow for mapping.  The contrast has been adjusted to enhance the visibility of surface and atmospheric features.

    EMIRS is an interferometric thermal infrared spectrometer (operating in the 6-40 micron wavelength range) that complements EXI in characterizing the lower atmosphere of Mars. EMIRS measurements are used to determine the distribution of lower atmospheric constituents such as dust, water ice and water vapor (presented here as optical depth – related to the amount of aerosols suspended in the atmosphere).  In addition, Mars surface temperatures and atmospheric temperature profiles up to 50 km from the surface are measured.  For the figures shown here, EMIRS data are averaged over an individual orbit of the Hope spacecraft (a time span of about 55 hours) to construct “globes” of dust optical depth (shown as shades of red, overlaid on a 3D map of surface elevations; these “globes” are centered at 4°N latitude, 100°E longitude).  The warming of the suspended dust by sunlight leads to the increased atmospheric temperatures, which are also detected by EMIRS.  

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    Rapid evolution

    Starting in late December 2021, EXI and EMIRS monitored a rapidly-evolving regional dust storm as it expanded to a size of over several thousand km.  A series of EXI and EMIRS “globes” are presented here (orientated with north to the top), documenting the growth and dissipation of the storm over nearly two weeks.

    The prominent dark “shark’s fin” feature in the EXI images is known as Syrtis Major. In this area, thin deposits of dark basaltic sand cover the surface of a gently-sloping shield volcano.  To the south, the tan circular feature is the Hellas impact basin (the largest crater on Mars – about 2300 km across, and up to 7 km deep) – often shrouded in dust and water-ice clouds.  In both the EMIRS and EXI globes, a green star marks a “reference location” (an 85-km diameter impact crater) to visually aid tracking features in both data sets.  

     On 29 December 2021 (EMM orbit number 153), EXI captured a fully illuminated disk of Mars nearly centered on Syrtis Major (image center: 24.6°S, 81.1°E). It was mid-winter in the southern hemisphere (Ls = 149°).  As is typical for this season, the atmosphere was relatively clear, with only thin water-ice clouds visible over the plains to the east of Syrtis.  As is also typical, Hellas appeared to be filled with tannish dust clouds, obscuring deposits of surface ice mantling the southern portion of the basin.  The EMIRS observations during this time confirm the relatively thick dust clouds in Hellas but detect only low amounts of suspended dust elsewhere. This set of EXI and EMIRS observations provides a baseline to compare with the subsequent views of Mars obtained over the following two weeks.

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    On 5 January 2022 (EMM orbit number 156), EXI obtained this half-illuminated view of Mars (image center: 12.3°S, 94.8°E) — the sun was just setting near the center of the disk.  Apparently forming over the previous week, a massive dust storm (about 2500 km across) was approaching from the east and was partially obscuring Syrtis Major; greyish water-ice clouds are also evident in this storm.  Hellas was completely shrouded by dust clouds.  The EMIRS observations clearly show the high concentrations of dust in the Syrtis and Hellas dust storms, with a “dust haze” extending far to the east.

    On January 7, 2022 (EMM orbit number 157), this mid-day EXI observation better reveals the extent of the dust haze and greyish water-ice clouds spreading to the east of Syrtis Major and to the north of Hellas (image center: 22.8°S, 97.9°E).  The EMIRS data reveal the increasing thickness of this diffuse dust haze, suggesting the active lifting of dust from the surface extending at least 4000 km eastward from Syrtis Major.

    On January 9, 2022 (EMM orbit number 158), EXI observed a fully illuminated hemisphere centered on Syrtis Major (image center: 22.7°S, 62.6°E).  The dust-lifting has extended to the west, with a discrete multi-lobed dust storm (about 1200 km across) swirling over northwestern Syrtis.  The dust haze is very prominent covering the plains eastward from Syrtis.  Again, EMIRS reveals the extent of the dust clouds – dramatically portraying the increased dust optical depth from NW of Syrtis all the way to the eastern limb of the map – spanning about 1/3 of the circumference of Mars!  Compare this set of observations with the relatively clear conditions prevailing on 29 December 2021!

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    The final time step is for January 14, 2022 (EMM orbit number 160).  EXI shows a late-afternoon (nearing sunset) view of Syrtis Major (image center: 8.5°S, 117.0°E).  No discrete dust storms are visible; instead a pervasive dust haze partially obscures, and extends eastward from, the entire Syrtis Major/Hellas region.  EMIRS data also indicate the thinning of the haze, with the amount of dust significantly reduced.  The continuation of the dust veil to fill the Hellas basin is evident in both the EXI image and EMIRS map.

    As the Martian season approaches southern spring, dust storm activity typically becomes more pervasive.  The Hope observatory is a valuable orbiting asset in documenting the location and evolution of dust storms on the planet, giving unprecedented observations and insight into the nature of these storms and their characterisation.