Dust devils (vertical columns of hot air and particles) may seem like a weather phenomenon found only on Earth.
But new images captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover show one measuring a whopping 1.2 miles high on the Martian surface.
Perseverance captured the dust devil as it moved east to west at about 12 miles per hour on Thorofare Ridge, located on the western edge of Mars’ Jezero Crater.
It was about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away from the six-wheeled rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021 after a nearly seven-month journey through space.
In addition to collecting rock samples and producing oxygen, Perseverance acts as a pair of eyes on Mars so scientists can learn about the planet’s climate from 230 million miles away.
The dust devil (circled) was filmed by Perseverance from about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away.
The clip, whose speed has been altered to show the devil’s progress, is made up of 21 frames taken four seconds apart, according to NASA.
in a blog entryScientists at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained that the dust devil was captured by one of Perseverance’s ‘Navcams’.
These black-and-white navigation cameras, mounted on top of the rover’s long “neck,” use visible light to collect panoramic 3D images.
Although only the lower 118 meters (387 feet) of the vortex were visible in the camera frame, scientists used the shadow of the dust devil to estimate its total height at 2 kilometers (1.2 miles).
“We don’t see the top of the dust devil, but the shadow it casts gives us a good indication of its height,” said Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a Perseverance member. scientific team.
‘Most are vertical columns; If this dust devil were configured that way, its shadow would indicate that it is approximately 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) high.’
The dust devil is shown in the background with regolith (a layer of loose dust, broken rocks and other Martian fragments) in the foreground.
The six-wheeled rover is on Mars to search for signs of ancient life, search for water and collect samples of Martian soil and rock to one day return to Earth.
What are dust devils?
A dust devil is a funnel-shaped chimney through which hot air moves, both upward and in a circle.
They are usually noticeable by the dust, sand, and debris it picks up from the ground.
They form when warm air rises rapidly through the cooler air above. If conditions are right, this can cause a spinning effect as the air rises.
Dust devils are typically found in arid conditions when sunlight is particularly strong.
Source: American Meteorological Society
The sped-up clip was captured on August 30, the 899th Martian day, or ‘sol’, of the Perseverance mission.
A sol consists of 24 hours and 37 minutes, that is, a little more than an Earth day.
Just like on Earth, dust devils form when rising cells of warm air mix with descending columns of cooler air, carrying dust and debris in their wake.
But Martian versions can be much larger than those found on Earth, due to the lower gravity and abundance of dust on our neighboring planet.
Dust devils are also more prominent during the spring and summer months when temperatures are warmer.
This is because warm air near the ground rises quickly through cooler air above, which can trigger the updraft.
The northern hemisphere of Mars, where Perseverance is located, is currently in summer.
Perseverance has been tasked with searching for dust devils in all directions to help scientists on the ground track the Martian climate.
It’s taking black and white images to reduce the amount of data sent to Earth, which means less waiting to see what Perseverance is seeing.
Dust devils are also more prominent during the spring and summer months when temperatures are warmer. This is because warm air near the ground rises quickly through cooler air above, which can trigger the updraft. The northern hemisphere of Mars, where Perseverance is located, is currently in summer.
A full-scale test model of the Perseverance rover currently on Mars is displayed during a press conference for the Mars Sample Return mission in the Mars Yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, April 11, 2023.
But the rover’s key goal is to search for traces of fossilized microbial life and collect rock specimens to return to Earth.
For more than two years he has been busy scouring Jezero Crater collecting rock samples and placing them in a titanium tube.
Jezero Crater was the location chosen because scientists believe the area was once flooded with water and was home to an ancient river delta.
Secrets about this body of water, if it existed, could remain locked in rock samples, ready for scientists on Earth to unravel.
However, Perseverance will not bring the samples to Earth: the rover is storing the tubes in certain locations to be collected by a very ambitious recovery mission.
Samples are being captured from Jezero Crater near a four-billion-year-old fossilized river delta that could contain signs of ancient life.
This joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently in development, although it is reportedly not making much progress.
A report released last week by NASA’s Institutional Review Board suggested there is a danger of not launching due to costs and “complexities.”
It said: “There is currently no credible, consistent or adequately margined schedule, cost or technical basis that can be achieved with the likely funding available.”
Working hard: NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter search for life on the Red Planet
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth in the early years of the solar system’s evolution.
Called Perseverance, the main car-sized rover is exploring an ancient river delta inside Jezero Crater, once filled with a 1,600-foot-deep lake.
The region is believed to have hosted microbial life between 3.5 and 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to look for evidence of life.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet.
The $2.5bn (£1.95bn) Mars 2020 spacecraft launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside and successfully landed on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance landed inside the crater and will slowly collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.
A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, perhaps in the late 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s “sky crane” system.