The Role of Curiosity’s Tiny Motor in Spotting a Global Martian Dust Storm

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The biggest dust storm on Mars since 2007, which covered the whole surface of the planet for long months, took place between May and July of this year. Thanks to a huge amount of instruments that we have on the Red Planet and around it, the scientists were able to identify this weather phenomenon rather quickly. According to a recent report, a tiny electric motor, with which the Curiosity rover is equipped, allowed the scientists to spot the rapidly developing dust storm incredibly fast.

Curiosity’s actuator was the first to spot the storm

The first signs of the storm were noticed by scientists on June 5 thanks to MSL Curiosity, which was conducting its research in the area of the Gale Crater. However, this discovery was made not through observations, but rather thanks to a tiny motor, or actuator, with which the Curiosity rover is equipped. Its role is to power a lid to a funnel that collects samples of powdered rock. Since this tool is hugely important for the mission, its temperature is constantly monitored, as the actuator is exposed to the conditions on Mars. Suddenly, on that day, its temperature started dropping.

The development of the dust storm

The storm began to intensify, covering the whole sky, which resulted in a temperature drop. At night, however, the ground heated by dust caused the rise of the temperature. Soon after the first readings from the actuator, REMS (the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station) was also able to observe the formation of the dust storm.

An unexpected role of the actuator

On July 28, using the temperature readings from the actuator and the historic temperature averages from the same tool, Benito Prats, an electromechanical at the Goddard Space Flight Center, managed to estimate precisely the day when the dust storm would weaken. Exactly as predicted, on September 18 most of the dust had settled, signaling that the storm on Mars was abating. Thanks to Curiosity’s actuator and data gathered by Prats, the scientists might be able to predict future storms and their development more accurate.

Patrick Supernaw

Patrick Supernaw is the lead editor for Great Lakes Ledger. Patrick has written for many publications including The Huffington Post and Vanity Fair. Patrick is based in Ottawa and covers issues affecting his city. In addition to his severe hockey addiction, Pat also enjoys kayaking and can often be found paddling the Rideau Canal. Contact Pat here