The pictures that the Mars Curiosity Rover send back may look placid and peaceful, but life in Gale crater can get windy at times, new data suggests.
NASA researchers announced today evidence of dust devils — tiny dirt tornadoes — landing in Gale crater, either on top of or very close to Curiosity:
During the first 12 weeks after Curiosity landed in an area named Gale Crater, an international team of researchers analysed data from more than 20 atmospheric events with at least one characteristic of a whirlwind recorded by the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) instrument. Those characteristics can include a brief dip in air pressure, a change in wind direction, a change in wind speed, a rise in air temperature or a dip in ultraviolet light reaching the rover. Two of the events included all five characteristics.
“Dust in the atmosphere has a major role in shaping the climate on Mars,” said Manuel de la Torre Juarez of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement from NASA. “The dust lifted by dust devils and dust storms warms the atmosphere.”
Here’s a typical example of what the dust devil looks like to Curiosity’s instruments. The blue is the air pressure around the rover, which takes a dip as a dirt tornado passes over. At the same time, the wind booms see drastic changes in wind direction:
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ CAB (CSIC-INTA)
Sadly for the visually inclined, these dirt devils haven’t been caught on any of Curiosity’s cameras yet. Perhaps the thin atmosphere of the planet means they aren’t strong enough to sling sand, the researchers suggested. They have been seen by other rovers and orbiters, for example here’s an animation of one caught by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:
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