Scientists find the source of all that crazy Mars dust

Mars is a dust bowl thanks to one immense geological feature, a new study suggests.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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Dark sediments appear in this NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of a section of the Medusae Fossae formation.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars is looking pretty hazy these days thanks to a nutty global dust storm that sent one of NASA's rovers into hibernation. All that dust had to come from somewhere, and scientists believe they've found the main source. 

The over 600-mile-long (1,000-kilometer) Medusae Fossae Formation near Mars' equator traces its origins to long-ago volcanic activity.  A new study published in the journal Nature Communications calls out the wind-eroded Medusae Fossae as the single largest source of dust on Mars.

"Mars wouldn't be nearly this dusty if it wasn't for this one enormous deposit that is gradually eroding over time and polluting the planet, essentially," said study co-author Kevin Lewis from Johns Hopkins University. 

The research team looked at the chemical composition of Mars dust using data collected by rovers and landers from different points across the Red Planet. "Dust everywhere on the planet is enriched in sulfur and chlorine and it has this very distinct sulfur to chlorine ratio," lead author Lujendra Ojha said. 

The scientists compared this dusty fingerprint with data collected by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft showing the same chemical match in the Medusae Fossae Formation. 

The scientists calculated how much of the formation has eroded over the course of 3 billion years and estimated that the quantity of dust on Mars is enough to form a global layer between 6.5 feet (2 meters) and 39 feet (12 meters) thick. 

The current global dust storm has been raging since late May, leaving NASA's Opportunity rover out of contact and creating hazy skies around the Curiosity rover. It's no wonder Mars is able to kick up such a fuss of dust right now. It has plenty to spare.

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