ASU instrument monitors developing Mars dust storm

April 16, 2009

Scientists at Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility are using the Thermal">">Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter to monitor a new dust storm that has erupted on the Red Planet.

The dust storm began in mid-March 2009, in the large Southern Hemisphere impact basin named Hellas. It has since grown as it spread northward in a patchy fashion. How large the storm will become is unknown, but previous storms have grown to envelop the whole planet for weeks at a time.

"This storm is coming at a time in the Martian year — around the planet's closest approach to the Sun — when dust storms are common," says Philip Christensen, of the Mars Space Flight Facility on the Tempe campus. Christensen, a Regents' Professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is the designer and principal investigator for the THEMIS camera.

"But so far," he says, "this storm has not reached the severity of the big dust storm of 2001, or even the more modest one in 2007."

Mars' closest approach to the sun comes April 21, and summer begins in the planet's southern hemisphere a month later. Both effects combine to produce the atmospheric heating that drives the dust activity.

Dust in the eyes

Dust storms affect operations for all five spacecraft working at Mars. The fleet includes two NASA rovers on the ground (Spirit and Opprtunity), plus three orbiters, two of which belong to NASA (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and one from the European Space Agency (Mars Express).

"If the dust causes a lot of obscuration, we lose the ability to image the ground," explains Christensen. "In big dust storms, the rover teams are strongly affected as dust in the air reduces sunlight which provides power for driving and science operations. And when the dust finally settles out, it coats the solar panels, diminishing their capability."

"We've noticed increasing opacity over the last several days," says Steve Ruff, of the Mars Space Flight Facility. "This has produced roughly a 20 percent drop in power for Spirit." Ruff is in charge of day-to-day operations for the Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometers, a mineral-scouting instrument each rover carries.

In the 2007 storm, dust blocked more than 99 percent of the sunlight for both rovers.

"When dust kicks up," Ruff says, "it hurts." Download Full Image

Robert Burnham

Science writer, School of Earth and Space Exploration


Ernesto Fonseca is one of 'Forty-Under-40'

April 16, 2009

The" title="ASU College of Design">ASU College of Design’s Ernesto Fonseca was named as one of The Phoenix Business Journal’s 2009 “" title=""Forty-Under-40"">Forty-Under-40.” The designation honors professionals who have made significant contributions to the community and who have achieved remarkable milestones in their careers.

Fonseca is an" title="ASU Stardust Center">ASU Stardust Center designer/architect and urban planner who has a commitment to environmental sustainability and energy conservation with a particular sensitivity to multicultural communities. He currently is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Design and Planning at ASU and is passionate about developing innovative affordable, energy-efficient and culturally relevant housing. Download Full Image

During 2006 Fonseca earned his Masters in Energy and Climate and Building Sciences at ASU. Since beginning his graduate studies, he has worked for the Stardust Center on innovative housing projects and led the Stardust Center’s design/build project in 2006. He worked closely with residents and city officials of Guadalupe, a small Yaqui and Mexican-American community in the Phoenix-metro area. He also collaborated with numerous volunteer and non-profit agencies including Guadalupe Youth Build to construct a home and conducted the post-occupancy energy monitoring. Fonseca adds an important dimension to the Stardust team with his creativity, knowledge and skills that bridges cultures and generations.

Fonseca has been intensely involved in the architectural design and planning, energy engineering and, in some cases, the actual building of projects. During the summer of 2005, work was completed on the Nageezi House, Stardust Center’s first demonstration home. Located on allotted lands of the Navajo Nation, Fonseca was involved in the design, construction and post-occupancy energy monitoring of this culturally relevant home for a family of Navajo elders.

Through his private practice, Fonseca is designing a 900-acre eco-village in La Paz, Mexico. He’s also working with the city of Nogales, Sonora, to establish their first municipal planning institute in collaboration with fellow College of Design colleague," title="Francisco Lara">Francisco Lara. 

Having completed a professional degree in architecture in Mexico, with a specialization in materials, Fonseca arrived in the U.S. during 1998; however, he was unable to find work in his professional field. Determined to patiently work hard and persevere, he earned a living as a restaurant server, factory painter and a group home manager/caretaker of physically and developmentally disabled youths and adults. With the encouragement and support of his partner, Susan, he was inspired to apply to ASU to further his education.

Wendy Craft

Marketing and communications manager, Business and Finance Communications Group