Space

Curiosity celebrates second Mars-year anniversary with weather report

Curiosity celebrates second Ma...
Curiosity has now been on Mars for two Mars years (close to four Earth years), allowing NASA to analyze weather data for seasonal patterns
Curiosity has now been on Mars for two Mars years (close to four Earth years), allowing NASA to analyze weather data for seasonal patterns
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The average air temperatures on Mars fluctuate wildly, and follow a seasonal trend
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The average air temperatures on Mars fluctuate wildly, and follow a seasonal trend
Atmospheric pressure fluctuates by as much as 25 percent, due to carbon dioxide being seasonally frozen and released in the polar caps
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Atmospheric pressure fluctuates by as much as 25 percent, due to carbon dioxide being seasonally frozen and released in the polar caps
The water-vapor content in the atmosphere is much lower than Earth's, but humidity can still reach 70 percent
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The water-vapor content in the atmosphere is much lower than Earth's, but humidity can still reach 70 percent
Curiosity has now been on Mars for two Mars years (close to four Earth years), allowing NASA to analyze weather data for seasonal patterns
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Curiosity has now been on Mars for two Mars years (close to four Earth years), allowing NASA to analyze weather data for seasonal patterns
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In August 2014, the Mars Curiosity Rover celebrated the two-year anniversary of its landing, and this week it celebrated its two year anniversary – again. This time though, we're talking two Mars years, as opposed to Earth years, and with that milestone, NASA has been able to gather and analyze data on seasonal patterns in the Martian atmosphere.

From the dramatic landing to selfies, triumphs to tribulations, signs of water and other elements key to life, it's been an exciting two or four years (depending on which planet you live on).

A Mars year clocks in at 687 Earth days, or a bit under two Earth years. And with the red planet spinning on a tilt very close to that of our big blue ball, Mars has similar seasons, which NASA can now study in more detail. With two full Mars years under its belt, the agency can compare the data gathered in each and determine which events are cyclical with the seasons and which are one-off anomalies.

The findings have been interesting. One such anomaly is the tenfold spike in methane levels detected in the atmosphere over a few weeks in Curiosity's first autumn, after initially finding this key byproduct of life to be almost non-existent. When the increase didn't repeat the following year, NASA could determine it was an "episodic event" and not a recurring seasonal one.

The average air temperatures on Mars fluctuate wildly, and follow a seasonal trend
The average air temperatures on Mars fluctuate wildly, and follow a seasonal trend

Other measurements, including temperature, humidity and air pressure are more cyclical. The temperature ranges vary wildly but follow a strong seasonal trend, which is especially clear when mapped alongside those of a location like Los Angeles. As observed by Curiosity, a summer afternoon can be as warm as 60.5° F (15.9° C), while winter nights can plummet to minus 148° F (minus 100° C).

Air pressure variations are also extreme. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide freeze solid at the polar caps during winter, and are released back into the atmosphere in spring, which NASA says leads to seasonal variations in the air pressure of about 25 percent – a huge amount, compared to Earth.

Clarity of the local atmosphere also appears to be dictated by the seasons, with Curiosity recording fluctuations in visibility in Gale Crater from as low as 20 miles (30 km) in summer, up to 80 miles (130 km) in winter.

Learning to differentiate between seasonal variations and one-off anomalies is instrumental in understanding the atmosphere of Mars, both past and present.

Project scientist Ashwin Vasavada explains the findings in the video below.

Source: NASA JPL

Curiosity Rover Report (May 11, 2016): Mars Weather Report

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