On Tuesday, Perseverance released footage of a whirling dust devil in the distance captured by one of the rover’s cameras. This weather phenomenon takes place both on Earth and Mars, and can help us better understand Mars’ climate.
While reviewing footage captured by Perseverance, NASA engineers caught a glimpse of a dust devil in the background. The video was released through Perseverance’s Twitter account, but the space agency has not yet provided any further details on the wind speeds of this particular dust devil.
What’s new — In the video, a whirlwind can be spotted in the background with Perseverance’s robotic arm at the center of the frame.
Nick Schneider, a planetary science professor at the University of Colorado, says that dust devils have been observed on Mars across time — even if our understanding of them is more recent.
“There was a time when astronomers would study Mars through telescopes and they could actually see changing patterns which they thought was vegetation,” Schneider tells Inverse. “But it actually was just the dust being blown around.”
A second animation was created by hobbyist Simeon Schmauss, an engineering student in Germany, who spotted what he believes to be a dust devil in footage captured by one of Perseverance’s descent cameras released on the mission’s website.
Schmauss placed the raw footage on Mars’ terrain in three-dimension after it was released, which is when he spotted the dust devil in action.
“I was doing this in my free time, just for fun and by chance I discovered a little dust devil moving in the image,” Schmauss tells Inverse.
What are Mars dust devils?
Dust devils take place both on Mars and Earth in pretty much the same way.
As the ground gets hotter than the air above it, air is drawn into a narrow column, with plumes of hot air moving through cooler air, creating an updraft. The cooler air then sinks to create vertical circulation, forming a funnel.
If this air funnel is met with a horizontal gust of wind, a dust devil starts whirling its way across the surface, picking up more dust as it goes.
Schneider says that even though Mars’ atmosphere is made up of different ingredients than Earth’s, both planets experience the same phenomenon across different temperatures.
“I'd say it's remarkably similar,” Schneider says. “But these atmospheric science principles apply no matter what gas is involved, so nobody was too surprised that it would exist.”
However, Martian dust devils tend to be much larger than the ones we experience on Earth. They can get as high as 12 miles above the surface of Mars, and create paths in their way that are hundreds of miles wide.
Mars has a significantly thinner atmosphere than Earth, about one percent of the air pressure. Since the planet’s atmosphere is not dense with gas particles like that of Earth’s, the high winds are not dangerous on Mars.
On Mars, around 30 percent of the dust in the atmosphere is placed there by dust devils, which warm the atmosphere and help it retain water vapor.
Why are Mars dust devils important?
Scientists observe dust devils in order to better understand how they may influence Mars’ climate over time.
In the past, dust devils have helped out roaming rovers on Mars. NASA rovers like Spirit and Opportunity relied on solar panels to power their way through Mars. Dust devils cleared dirt off the solar panels, allowing for more sunlight to reach the panels.
Although Perseverance runs on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) plutonium power source, spotting dust devils give mission scientists insights on the environment of Mars.