Surface of Mars is hidden by massive dust storm

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The Independent Online

The surface of Mars was hidden from view yesterday by a blanket of dust whipped up by a giant storm seen at close quarters from a space probe for the first time.

The surface of Mars was hidden from view yesterday by a blanket of dust whipped up by a giant storm seen at close quarters from a space probe for the first time.

The Mars Global Surveyor, which began mapping the planet's surface in detail two years ago, has been sending back images of a cataclysmic weather system enveloping the whole planet. The storm, one of several which sweep across Mars every year, has sent the temperature on the planet soaring by up to 30C.

The hurricane started in the middle of last month in the Hellas Basin, a large crater on the south of the planet, but initially remained in the area – literally gathering dust.

But four weeks ago the storm suddenly intensified and expanded, moving into the northern hemisphere last week and now virtually covering the whole planet, 43 million miles from Earth.

The dust clouds have risen into the atmosphere, absorbing and trapping heat from the sun in a cycle which has allowed the storm to gather pace.

Professor Philip Christensen, of Arizona State University, said: "The dust trapped sunlight and heated the atmosphere locally. As this warm air flowed to regions where the air was still cool, it generated winds which raised more dust. Most of the planet is enveloped and the temperature has risen by about 30C."

The growing intensity of the storm will eventually throw so much dust into the atmosphere that it will block the sun and cause Mars to cool dramatically, bringing the storm to an end.

Scientists, who in the 1970s used dust storm observations on Mars to project the catastrophic climate change that would follow a nuclear war on Earth, say it could offer an insight into global warming.

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