A dust devil on Mars has been caught in the act of tearing across the Red Planet in a spectacular new photo by a NASA spacecraft.
Scientists have known that dust devils kick up the Martian dirt on the red planet for years. In 2012, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of a 12-mile-high dust devil with its plume stretching to the sky.
Dust devils on Mars and dust devils on Earth form in similar ways even though Mars’ atmosphere is incredibly thin by comparison. According to NASA, the devils form when, on a dry day, part of the ground heats up more than the surrounding area.
Unlike tornados, dust devils usually form on clear days when the ground soaks up a lot of heat from the sun. If conditions are right, heated air near the surface may begin to rotate as it rises through small pockets of cooler air just above it, NASA researchers explained in a statement.
The Reconnaissance Orbiter took the photo using the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a powerful camera that’s been snapping photos of the Martian surface since 2006.
Typically, it’s a pretty rare opportunity to catch a dust devil in the act even though it isn’t exactly uncommon on Mars since it’s a dusty, windy planet. The whirlwinds often fade almost as quickly as they appear. That makes capturing an image of one in action a rare treat.
The spacecraft continues to provide valuable insights into the planet’s ancient environment and how processes such as wind, meteorite impacts, and seasonal frosts still affect the surface of Mars today, NASA officials said.
On Monday, the University of Arizona team that built and managed HiRISE published details on the newly photographed dust devil, which formed on Amazonis Planitia’s volcanic plains.
The core of the dust devil is 50 meters (164 feet) wide, according to the HiRISE team, and based on the length of its shadow; they believe it is probably about 650 meters (2,132 feet) tall.
NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in September 2005. The $720 million mission is NASA’s youngest Mars orbiter flight to date but has beamed more data to Earth than all other interplanetary missions combined.
Consequently, Martian colonists can now add towering swirls of dust and debris to the challenges list.