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Red Planet Dust Storms Rage in Mars Express Photos

A dust storm underway at the edge of the north polar ice cap of Mars, as seen by Europe's Mars Express orbiter on May 29, 2019.
A dust storm underway at the edge of the north polar ice cap of Mars, as seen by Europe's Mars Express orbiter on May 29, 2019.
(Image: © ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao)

It's dust-storm season in northern Mars, as a series of newly released photos makes very clear.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express orbiter captured dramatic imagery of multiple storms swirling near the Red Planet's north pole over the past few months.  

"It is currently spring in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and water-ice clouds and small dust-lifting events are frequently observed along the edge of the seasonally retreating [polar] ice cap," ESA officials wrote Thursday (July 4) in a statement accompanying the photos.

This series of images captured by Europe's Mars Express orbiters covers about 70 minutes of motion as a dust storm moves along the north polar ice cap of Mars on May 29, 2019. The storm moved with an approximate speed of 45 mph (72 km/h). The polar ice cap covers much of the left of the image while the storm is seen on the right. (Image credit: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao)

Mars Express "observed at least eight different storms at the edge of the ice cap between 22 May and 10 June, which formed and dissipated very quickly, between one and three days," the officials added.

Such storms aren't always so short-lived and limited in reach. Last summer, a Martian dust storm flared up near the equator and soon went global, blanketing the entire Red Planet for weeks. The thick dust pall deprived NASA's solar-powered Opportunity rover of sunlight, bringing an end to the robot's long and accomplished mission.

Between late May and early June 2019, several different dust storms were seen to be building up at the north polar ice cap of Mars. These images were taken by Europe's Mars Express when the spacecraft was at an altitude of about 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers). The long image strips cover an area of about 1,240 miles by 3,100 miles (2,000 by 5,000 kilometres), extending from the north pole equatorward to the large volcanoes Olympus Mons and Elysium Mons. (Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Some of the newly released Mars Express imagery shows the recent regional storms heading south, from the ice cap's margin toward the huge volcanoes Olympus Mons and Elysium Mons. 

When the storms reached these volcanoes, clouds in the area "that had previously been developing started to evaporate as a result of the air mass being heated by the influx of dust," ESA officials wrote.

Mars Express arrived in orbit in December 2003, just a few weeks before Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, hit the red dirt.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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