NASA records dust tornadoes over 387 feet tall on Mars

The eerie sound of Mars’ ‘dust devils’: Recordings taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover suggest whirlwinds reach over 387 FEET tall as they skim across the Red Planet

  • NASA’s Perseverance rover has taken an audio recording of a dust devil on Mars
  • The whirlwind of grit was over 387 feet (118 m) and blew at 25 mph (40 kph)
  • It provided scientists insight into the atmosphere and weather on the Red Planet
  • You can hear the blowing winds and sound of dust hitting the rover’s exterior

Dust tornadoes over 387 feet (118 m) tall are skimming along the surface of Mars, scientists have found.

Known as ‘dust devils’, these whirlwinds swirl around at speeds of 25 mph (40 kph), blowing up grit and particles as they go.

NASA’s Perseverance rover took the first ever audio recording of the phenomenon, which provides insight into the atmosphere and weather on the Red Planet.

This could help engineers as they design future Mars missions, as bombardment from the dust has implications on the hardware we send up.

Dust tornadoes over 387 feet (118 m) tall are skimming along the surface of Mars, scientists have found. Pictured: A 70-yard-wide Martian dust devil  

This is a spectrogram of the microphone sound showing the wind noise, grain impacts and also the rover pump harmonic at 760 Hz. A large grain impact causes an acoustic echo at approximately 6 kHz due to sound reflections from the base of the microphone

There are 23 cameras mounted to the Perseverance rover including:

Nine engineering cameras, seven science cameras and seven for entry, descent and landing. 

The engineering cameras give detailed information in colour about the terrain the rover has to cross.

They measure the ground for safe driving, check out the status of hardware and support sample gathering.

There are Hazcams for hazard detection and Navcams for navigation.

Science cameras record in more detail and can even capture 3D images.

The Mastcam-Z on a 2 metre arm has a zoom feature for focusing on distant objects and can film video.

The Supercam fires a laser at mineral targets beyond the reach of the rovers arm to analysed the chemical composition of the rock. 

Perseverance landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars on 18 February 2021, after a nearly seven-month journey through space.   

Since then, the car-sized robot has been searching for ancient biomarkers in the Martian clay, which could indicate if alien life ever existed there.

It is equipped with 23 cameras that help it navigate, assess its safety and collect visual data on near and distant objects.

One of those cameras is the ‘Supercam’ – a suite of tools located on Perseverance’s ‘head’ that contains scientific instruments, cameras and a microphone.

Sensors on other landers and rovers have been able to pick up vibrations on Mars in the past, however this microphone is the first to ever grace its surface. 

It records samples at nearly 100,000 times a second, which gives researchers a stronger sense of the environmental conditions on Mars.

‘We can learn a lot more using sound than we can with some of the other tools,’ said Dr Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of Perseverance’s SuperCam.

Scientists at NASA and the National Higher French Institute of Aeronautics and Space have used the microphone to make the first ever recording of an extraterrestrial dust devil.

Dust devils are common on Mars, and indicate areas of atmospheric turbulence.

They lift dust into the atmosphere – an important step in the planet’s dust cycle, which helps regulate its climate.

This particular one was about 82 feet (25 m) wide, which is about ten times wider than the rover itself.

Perseverance (pictured) landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18 2021, after a nearly seven-month journey through space 

Dust devils (pictured( are common on Mars, and indicate areas of atmospheric turbulence. They lift dust into the atmosphere – an important step in the planet’s dust cycle

Prior to this recording, data collected by Perseverance’s other sensors showed that over a hundred of these tornadoes have passed over the rover since it landed.

However, since the microphone is only on for about three minutes every day, it wasn’t until 27 September 2021 that the sound of a dust devil was picked up for the first time.

You can clearly hear the blowing winds, with a faint pattering of grains bouncing off the rover’s exterior.

As well as the audio recording, Perseverance took air pressure readings and time-lapse photos during this encounter. 

Dr Roger Wiens, the principal investigator of Perseverance’s SuperCam, said that all this enabled the researchers to follow the dust devil.

He said: ‘We could watch the pressure drop, listen to the wind, then have a little bit of silence that is the eye of the tiny storm, and then hear the wind again and watch the pressure rise.’ 

This figure shows the relative size of the dust devil with respect to the Perseverance rover. The dust devil diameter (white circles) is 25 m. The blue dashed arrow shows the dust devil trajectory direction. The rover Navigation camera (Navcam) field of view is indicated by the pale triangle. At t1, Perseverance is in the leading vortex wall. At t2, Perseverance is inside the eye of the vortex. At t3, Perseverance is in the tailing vortex wall. The orange arrows indicate the clockwise rotational direction of the vortex winds

These are images taken of the direct dust devil encounter by the the rover’s Navigation Camera (Navcam). The images have been processed to show the quantity of dust. The colour scale ranges from lowest dust content (blue) to highest dust content (yellow)

WHAT IS A ‘DUST DEVIL’? 

Dust devils are small ‘but vigorous’ whirlwinds that pick up dust, sand and debris it picks up from the ground.

They range from 3 to 30 metres in diameter on Earth, with an average high of 200 metres. Some have reached up to a kilometer.

They form when hot air rises quickly through the cooler air above it. If conditions are right this can cause a spinning effect as the air rises. 

Source: American Meteorological Society

The team analysed all the data Perseverance collected together, and their findings were published today in Nature Communications. 

They revealed that this tornado of dust and grit isn’t quite as menacing as some of those we’ve experienced on our home planet.

He said: ‘The wind is fast, about 25 miles per hour, but about what you would see in a dust devil on Earth. 

‘The difference is that the air pressure on Mars is so much lower that the winds, while just as fast, push with about one per cent of the pressure the same speed of wind would have back on Earth. 

‘It’s not a powerful wind, but clearly enough to loft particles of grit into the air to make a dust devil.’

This will come as a relief to future astronauts, who can be confident that they won’t have to face gale force winds while exploring the planet.

The dust devils may also have blown off grit that settled on the solar panels of previous rovers, helping them to survive on Mars for longer than they otherwise would have.

The Spirit rover lasted for six years, and the Opportunity rover remained active for nearly 15 years. 

Dr Wiens said: ‘Those rover teams would see a slow decline in power over a number of days to weeks, then a jump. That was when wind cleared off the solar panels.’

This could explain why the InSight lander, which currently sits in the less windy Elysium Planitia, is winding down its mission after only four years.

Scientists at NASA and the National Higher French Institute of Aeronautics and Space have used Perseverance’s microphone to make the first ever recording of an extraterrestrial dust devil. Pictured: A dust devil photographed by NASA’s Curiosity Rover

Prior to this recording, data collected by Perseverance’s other sensors showed that over a hundred of these tornadoes have passed over the rover since it landed. Pictured: Three dust devils photographed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The researchers hope the microphone will be able to pick up the sound of dust devils that appear in different geological locations on Mars.

This will allow them to compare data from the different recordings to find out how the Martian landscape affects their properties. 

‘Just like Earth, there is different weather in different areas on Mars,’ Dr Wiens added. 

‘Using all of our instruments and tools, especially the microphone, helps us get a concrete sense of what it would be like to be on Mars.’

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NASA MARS 2020: PERSEVERANCE ROVER AND INGENUITY HELICOPTER ARE SEARCHING 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 earliest years of the evolution of the solar system.

Named Perseverance, the main car-sized rover is exploring an ancient river delta within the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600ft deep lake.

It is believed that the region hosted microbial life some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to hunt for evidence of the 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 $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spaceship launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside – and landed successfully 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 by the later 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

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