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Enormous Dust Storm On Mars Threatens The Opportunity Rover

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Thick Dust Clouds Spotted Near Martian Ice Cap

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ESA’s Mars Express took an incredible photo of dust clouds on Mars near the planet’s north polar ice cap in April 2018, shortly before a larger dust storm darkened the entire planet’s skies.

Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

A thick cloud of dust moves over the surface of Mars near the planet's north polar ice cap in a stunning photograph.

This June, a massive dust storm hit Mars, and before long, the storm had encapsulated the entire planet. But dust clouds are a common occurrence on Mars; before that storm, a smaller-scale tempest kicked up the impressive plumes in this new photo, taken in April by the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express. The photoshows just how immense these clouds can get, with a thick dust cloud near the planet's north polar ice cap.

Dust storms happen on Mars most often during the southern summer season. At this time, the planet is closer to the sun along the elliptical Martian orbit, and the brightness increases the differences in temperature on Mars, which affect air movement on the planet. These temperature differences allow the Martian air to more easily lift dust particles on the surface, according to a statement from ESA.

However, while a planet-covering dust storm sounds terrifying, things aren't that chaotic on the surface. This is because storm wind speeds on Mars are usually less than half as fast as hurricane wind speeds on Earth. Additionally, because atmospheric pressure is so low on the Red Planet, even high-speed winds wouldn't do much damage to anyone on the planet. "You would probably feel a breeze, but it wouldn't be knocking you over," Michael Smith, who works at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, previously said to Space.com.

Mars Express captured this cloud using a high-resolution stereo camera on board. The dust storm that continues to rage on Mars is being imaged and monitored by five ESA and NASA orbiters, while NASA's Curiosity rover continues to collect data on the red, dusty surface.

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her @chelsea_gohd. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Unique Armored Dinosaur Discovered In Utah

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The fossil reveals new details about the diversity and evolution of ankylosaurid dinosaurs

In 2008, researchers found the fossil of a remarkable armored dinosaur in southern Utah. The North American Late Cretaceous ankylosaurid dinosaur was covered in a smooth bony armor but it seems to be more closely related to ankylosaurids found in Asia than to ones that lived in northern America.

The new species of ankylosaurid dinosaur lived 76 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous Period and roamed the lost continent of Laramidia. Although many ankylosaurids dinosaur fossils have been found over the years in the southwestern US, the recent fossil offers the most complete skeleton of an ankylosaurid in the region. The fossil includes a complete skull, vertebrae and limb bones, as well as a perfectly preserved bony body armor.

The most interesting thing about this dinosaur is its spiky bony armor covering the skull and snout. These defining features make it look surprisingly similar to Asian ankylosaurids that originated in Asia between 125 to 100 million years ago.

“A reasonable hypothesis would be that ankylosaurids from Utah are related to those found elsewhere in western North America, so we were really surprised to discover that Akainacephalus was so closely related to species from Asia.” Co-author of the study Randall Irmis said in a statement.

A new analysis indicates that the diversity and evolution of armored dinosaurs in the region was the result of brief intervals of lowered sea level that allowed Asian ankylosaurid dinosaurs to immigrate to North America several times during the Late Cretaceous. Lower sea levels exposed the Beringian land bridge and allowed dinosaurs and other animals to move between Asia and North America, which led to the presence of two separate groups of ankylosaurid dinosaurs.

“It is extremely fascinating and important for the science of paleontology that we can read so much information from the fossil record, allowing us to better understand extinct organisms and the ecosystems they were a part of,” said lead author Jelle Wiersma.

“…Akainacephalus johnsoni; not only is this the first described and named Late Cretaceous ankylosaurid dinosaur from Utah, but this unique animal also strengthens the idea the evidence that distinct northern and southern provincialism existed during the late Campanian stage in Laramidia, because to date, we don’t see this type of ankylosaurid dinosaurs in the fossil record of northern Laramidia.”

Akainacephalus johnsoni has been assigned to a new genus. The genus name comes from the Greek words akaina, which means ‘thorn’ or ‘spike’, and cephalus, meaning ‘head.’ The other part of the name honors Randy Johnson, a dedicated museum volunteer who skillfully reconstructed its skull.

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This Massive Dust Storm Could Engulf Mars for Months

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Every six to eight years, massive dust storms can envelop Mars’s whole surface. NASA’s Martian probes are currently watching one unfold over the Red Planet. Scientists saw a small-scale dust storm begin on May 30th, and by June 20th, it’d gone “global,” engulfing the whole planet. For the NASA Opportunity rover, visibility dropped from that of a sunny day to an overcast one. Because the rover runs on solar energy, researchers suspended it to preserve its batteries. According to NASA, it could take as long as September before the dust starts to settle, and the Opportunity starts reporting back.

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Meanwhile, numerous other Mars orbiters are helping scientists understand the dust storm. “This is one of the largest weather events that we’ve seen on Mars,” since spacecraft observations began in the 1960s, said Michael Smith, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. Smith and other scientists are trying to understand how small, regional storms swarm to become such a large one. They’re also recording how the dust storm changes the planet’s atmospheric temperatures, which can change winds, which in turn can amplify the storm by stirring up more dust from the planet’s surface. “The very fact that you can start with something that’s a local storm, no bigger than a small [US] state, and then trigger something that raises more dust and produces a haze that covers almost the entire planet is remarkable,” said Rich Zurek, the project scientist for MRO, which maps the evolution of the storm daily in color images and atmospheric temperature.

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Meanwhile, the Mars Curiosity is on a mission to acquire rock samples and study the storm from the surface of Mars itself, and another orbiter is studying Mars’ high atmosphere, 100 kilometers above the surface, where the dust doesn’t reach. Every time you see Mars in the sky in the weeks ahead, NASA advises, “remember how much data scientists are gathering to better understand the mysterious weather of the Red Planet.”

(via NASA)

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