The European Space Agency has released a spectacular new image of a dust storm swirling over the northern polar region of Mars.
The image was taken by ESA's Mars Express orbiter using data created by the spacecraft's High Resolution Stereo Camera.
Astronomers at the German Aerospace Center, which manages the HRSC, manages the camera system, which took the image on April 3.
Martian Dust Storm Over The North Pole
Mars Express managed to capture the image of a dust storm whirling above the Utopia Planitia, a region located close to the Red Planet's polar ice cap in the northern polar region.
The dust storm is one of many small-scale events that took place on Mars over the last several months. It also proved to the portent of the massive dust storm that currently envelopes the entire planet in dust and darkness.
Dust storms on Mars are not uncommon. However, Martian winds do not travel as fast as those on Earth. The low atmospheric pressure also helps lessen the impact that strong winds can make on the surface of the planet.
Even then, Martian dust storms can grow so large that they can cover the entire planet. Following the north pole's dust storm in April, a larger storm began brewing in the Arabia Terra region in the southwest in May.
The dust storm has gone on to become a global phenomenon that has gotten NASA's Opportunity rover hunkering down to hibernate as the strong winds of dust pummel through the entire planet.
How Do Dust Storms Occur On Mars?
Dust storms occur on Mars in the summer of the southern hemisphere. This is when the Red Planet moves closer to the sun on its elliptical orbit.
The higher temperatures stirs up more dust particles and takes them into the atmosphere. This creates more wind, which then picks up even more dust particles in a puzzling cycle that Earth's scientists have yet to explain.
To exacerbate matters, the melting ice caps in the southern pole release an abundance of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This further increases atmospheric pressure that strengthens the storm to lift up even more dust into the air.
Giant Dust Storm Happening Now
Although most Martian dust storms can happen suddenly, they are often confined to a local area. Giant dust storms such as the one happening right now are far rarer, happening only every three to four Martian years, which is the equivalent of six to eight Earth years.
In 2007, an enormous dust storm blanketed Mars in complete darkness, cutting off most communications with Opportunity. The current dust storm is less powerful but still strong enough to stall Opportunity's operations.
At the moment, five of NASA and ESA's spacecraft continue to take observations of the Red Planet shrouded in storm, while NASA's Curiosity rover continues to explore the Martian surface because it does not need solar energy.
Experts expect the dust storm to die down by autumn, at which point Opportunity should be able to come back to life and continue its explorations.