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spaceSpace and Physics

Perseverance Snaps Its First Dust Devil Zooming Across Mars’s Surface

author

Katy Evans

Managing Editor

clockMar 17 2021, 15:11 UTC

Perseverance spots its first dust devil after just 26 sols. It took Opportunity about 7 years into its mission to spot its first. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Additional processing by IFLScience

While Perseverance is flexing and testing out various pieces of equipment in preparation for the start of its science mission to explore and search for signs of ancient life on Mars, it's already started sending back some exciting data.  

On top of the incredible footage of Perseverance's nail-biting landing and the first audio ever sent back from the Red Planet, it's beamed back a stunning 360° panorama of its new home, the first recording of a laser being shot on Mars (it's a "snap!" not a "pew!"), shared its first test drive around Jezero Crater, and delivered its first science results while testing out its awesome SuperCam instrument.

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Even while not working, it's still managed to capture images and data from Mars's surface that give a wealth of information to the rover team back home on Earth about conditions on the arid planet. 

This latest is Perseverance's first sighting of a dust devil, caught whirling across the dusty ground behind its robotic arm, after just 26 sols (Mars days). For context, it took Opportunity 7 years to catch its first. Sent back to Earth for some processing, the result is this nifty little gif of the devil spinning into view from the right, creating whirlwinds of dust in its path.  

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Dust devils form from rising pockets of warm air. The air nearer the ground can heat up due to contact with the warm soil that has been heated up by the Sun's rays. Warm air is less dense than cool air, so rises above it, forming an updraft. if conditions are right, that updraft may start to rotate. As more air rushes in to replace the warm air rising, it creates a vortex that spins. The spinning combined with surface friction can produce a forward momentum, which is why you often see them zipping across the ground. 

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There are certain conditions that increase the likelihood of dust devils occurring, and Mars has them all. Flat, barren terrain increases the chances of the hot air above ground, while dust helps make the devil visible. The surface needs to be able to absorb plenty of the Sun's heat to heat the ground, and as Mars has a very thin atmosphere, so there's not a lot protecting it from the Sun's rays. And finally, a cool atmosphere helps create an extreme difference between surface-heated warm air and cool air.

Being able to study dust devils on Mars gives researchers all sorts of clues on atmospheric conditions there, like wind direction and speed. They also periodically cleanse the surface of the top layer of dust and dirt that falls from the atmosphere, perfect for any rovers in need of a brush off of their own layers of dust. 

Dust devils on Mars are much bigger than the ones that occur on Earth. They can reach up to 8 kilometers (4.97 miles) high, creating paths hundreds of meters wide and stretching for several kilometers. This means they can throw up dust high into the atmosphere, which scientists can study to understand the effect of these phenomena on Mars's climate over time. 

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Plus, they make really cool pictures. 

dust devil Mars
A lonely dust devil whirling north of Antoniadi Crater on Mars snapped by HiRISE ON January 30, 2020. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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