Remember that opening scene from "The Martian," when poor Mark Watney gets thrown across the surface of the Red Planet by a powerful dust storm? Well, you may already know that this scene was somewhat glorified – in reality, dust storms on Mars are as gentle as a mild breeze on Earth.
But if you thought they couldn’t still be impressive, you’d be wrong. The amazing image above (and below in all its full resolution glory) was taken by NASA’s Opportunity rover, and in it, you’ll spot a so-called “dust devil.”
These are formed by rising columns of hot air that, when they whirl fast enough, can pick up small grains from the ground and make a visible vortex. Many were seen by Opportunity’s now-defunct sibling, Spirit, but only a handful have been seen by the former so far.
At the moment, Opportunity is making its way up the slope of the Knudsen Ridge. In fact, it’s the steepest slope ever traversed by a rover on Mars, with Opportunity tilted up to 32 degrees. The view here looks back towards Endeavour Crater, with Opportunity Deputy Principal Investigator Ray Arvidson describing the observed vortex as “a beautiful dust devil” to Universe Today.
Beyond the tracks of the rover, the dust devil can be seen whirling in the distance. NASA/JPL-Caltech
The intrepid rover has been climbing up this slope since late January. This image was taken on March 31, which is Sol 4332, the count of Martian days on the surface (equating to about 13 Earth years).
And Opportunity’s mission on Mars doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon. It was recently granted a proposed extension, so it will continue exploring the surface of the Red Planet – along with Curiosity on another part of the planet – for the foreseeable future. Later this decade, they will be joined by a third rover on the surface, the European ExoMars.
We may have to wait a couple more decades before we get a real-life Mark Watney on the surface to contend with these Martian twisters, though.