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This is a Dust Devil… on Mars

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Posted February 20, 2019

We live in a time when our spacecraft orbiting Mars at an altitude of about 300 km. can snap photos of a dust devil and transmit them back to us so we can share them on the internet. Not only that, but we have rovers wandering around on the surface taking pictures of the dust storms, too. Big deal, you say? So what, you say?

You’re dead inside.

Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The ancients dreamed of the day when we could look at pictures of Martian weather phenomena on the internet. I’m sure it says so somewhere in the hieroglyphics. I haven’t checked, but it doesn’t matter. We have the images and they don’t.

Many of these images are from the HiRISE (High Resolution Science Experiment) camera on the MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.) The dust devils are the HiPOD, or HiRISE Picture of the Day. Even if you’re not that into the science of Mars and Martian exploration, the images from HiRISE are still intriguing. Just let your eyes enjoy them.

Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The first two dust devil images are from a region on Mars called Acidalia Planitia, a region on Mars known for spawning dust devils.

A topographical map of Mars. Acidalia Planitia is at top centre, a uniform blue area. Image Credit: By United States Geological Survey

Our Martian rovers have spotted dust devils too. MSL Curiosity captured the ones in the video below.

MSL Curiosity captures images of dust devils on Mars.

In 2012, the HiRISE camera on the MRO captured this image of a serpentine-looking dust devil on Mars. The thing was over a half-mile high, and though the dust devil itself is serpentine, that’s just because of the wind. The dust devil travelled in a relatively straight line.

MRO’s HiRISE camera captured this image of the so-called serpentine dust devil on Mars in 2012. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The next dust devil in our menagerie is cool because it’s inside of a crater on Mars. This one was captured by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) orbiter. MGS was launched in 1996 and the mission was declared over when MGS became unresponsive in 2006. There’s an archive of images from the Mars Orbiter Camera on that mission.

A dust devil inside a Martian crater, as imaged by the Mars Global Surveyor. The dark spot is the dust devil itself, the streak is the trail left by the devil, and the long parallel streaks are sand dunes on the floor of the crater. Image Credit: MGS/ Public Domain

The best picture of Martian dust devils is this next one. It features tracks left by a plethora of dust devils traversing the surface of Mars. The devils often uncover a hidden layer of a different soil type, and the colors contrast, creating this trippy image of wind-driven art.

The artful creations of the Martian wind. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Dust devils are called aeolian processes in science-speak. They’re wind-driven changes on the surface of a planet.They’re also called thermal vortices. Here’s some more Martian beauties.

More dust-devils on the surface of Mars. The visual interplay between the dust devil tracks and the wind-driven dunes is beautiful. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

Most of the dust devils on Mars are not that big. But in March 2012 the HiRISE camera captured an absolute monster. Spotted in the Amazonis Planitia region, this behemoth created a dust plume 20 km high. On Earth, dust devils seldom reach higher than several hundred meters, though tornadoes can reach up to almost 10 miles high.

More dust-devils on the surface of Mars. The visual interplay between the dust devil tracks and the wind-driven dunes is beautiful. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

Source: Universe Today, by Evan Gough.

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