Rover offers Mars weather forecast: Pink skies, dust storms

10:52 AM, Aug 13, 2012   |    comments
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PASADENA, Calif. - Manuel de la Torre is a Martian weatherman, and the forecast for Curiosity's landing site calls for clear skies now but dust storms in the not-so-distant future.

"We are expecting a clear day here on Mars with thin ice clouds on the horizon," he said, and "balmy, minus-20-degree temperatures. But overnight, it might get chilly - all the way down to minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit."

Winds are expected to be calm. Skies should be pink.

But the winter season on the Red Planet is nearing an end. Spring and summer are bound to bring dust devils - swirling columns of dust that look and act like tornadoes.

Some of those will spin up into monster storms that can smother the planet.

Curiosity carries a sophisticated weather station that will enable De la Torre and other scientists to examine the phenomenon.

"We want to see how the dust devils form, and why do some dust devils evolve into dust storms that swallow the whole planet, and others don't," De la Torre said.

Two finger-like booms sticking out of Curiosity's tall camera-and-chemical laser mast will measure wind speed, wind direction, air temperature and relative humidity and ground temperature.

The rover also sports a device that measures air pressure and an ultraviolet sensor that records six different wavelength bands in the ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The Martian weather data will play a key role in determining whether the planet is, or ever was, habitable - whether conditions ever were, or are, conducive to the formation of primitive life.

Made in Spain, the weather station will provide scientists with data that show the environment that astronauts would encounter just south of the equator on the eastern side of the planet.

The Curiosity rover landed early Monday, and the weather station was powered up almost immediately. Over the next two years, the weather station will be recording data at least five minutes every hour.

A married father of two, De la Torre is one of a team of about 40 engineers and scientists assembled to develop the weather station and analyze the data it returns to Earth.

In the grand scheme of things, the study of Martian weather and climatology is a relatively new field.

Said De la Torre: "The fun thing about this is we know that we don't know, and we expect to learn, and we're looking forward to it."