Perseverance rover captures Martian 'dust devil' in actionon August 30, 2023, during the 899th Martian day (sol) of NASA's Perseverance rover mission as it moved along the western rim of Mars' Jezero Crater. A sol, unlike an Earth day, spans 24 hours and 37 minutes, making it slightly longer. This fascinating footage has been sped up 20 times and is composed of 21 frames taken at four-second intervals by one of the rover's Navcams.
Dust devils on Mars, although much weaker and generally smaller than Earth's tornadoes, play a crucial role in the movement and redistribution of dust across the Martian surface. Scientists are actively studying these phenomena to gain a deeper understanding of the Martian atmosphere and to enhance their weather models for the Red Planet.
By analyzing the imagery, the mission scientists were able to ascertain specific details about this particular dust devil. It was located approximately 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away from the rover's position, situated at a site referred to as "Thorofare Ridge." The dust devil was observed moving from east to west at a speed of roughly 12 mph (19 kph).
Its width was calculated to be approximately 200 feet (60 meters). Although only the lower 387 feet (118 meters) of the swirling vortex were visible within the camera frame, the scientists were able to estimate its complete height using the available data.
We don’t see the top of the dust devil, but the shadow it throws gives us a good indication of its height. Most are vertical columns. If this dust devil were configured that way, its shadow would indicate it is about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) in height.- Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a member of the Perseverance science team
In addition to its primary tasks of collecting rock samples and generating oxygen, Perseverance also serves as a remote set of eyes on Mars, allowing scientists to gather valuable insights about the planet's weather from a distance of 230 million miles away.
Dust devils, a phenomenon also observed on Earth, take shape when ascending pockets of warm air interact with descending columns of cooler air. However, the Martian counterparts of these dust devils can reach considerably larger sizes compared to their terrestrial counterparts.
The Perseverance rover on Mars
Although they are most commonly observed during the spring and summer months (Mars' northern hemisphere, where the Perseverance rover operates, is currently in summer), scientists are unable to predict their occurrence at specific locations. Consequently, both the Perseverance rover and its fellow NASA Mars rover, Curiosity, consistently scan their surroundings in all directions for these dust devils. To conserve data transmission, they capture images in black and white.
Nonetheless, the primary mission objective of the rover is to search for signs of fossilized microbial life and amass rock specimens destined for eventual return to Earth. Over the course of more than two years, it has been diligently traversing the Jezero Crater, collecting solid samples and carefully depositing them into titanium tubes.
Jezero Crater was selected as the landing site because scientists believe it was once submerged in water and served as a habitat for an ancient river delta. The mysteries surrounding this watery history, if it indeed existed, could be concealed within these rock samples, eagerly awaiting analysis by scientists on Earth.
Interestingly, Perseverance is not tasked with delivering these samples back to Earth itself. Instead, the rover is strategically storing these tubes at specific locations, as part of an ambitious plan for a future retrieval mission to collect them.
The collaborative venture between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) for this mission is presently in the development stage, but recent reports indicate that progress has been somewhat sluggish.
A report issued by NASA's Institutional Review Board last week has raised concerns about the mission's viability, citing potential challenges related to costs and complexities. The report stated that there is currently no feasible and well-structured technical plan, schedule, or budget that can be executed within the expected funding constraints.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is integral to NASA's broader strategy for lunar and Martian exploration, encompassing the Artemis missions dedicated to lunar exploration, which serve as a stepping stone for future human expeditions to Mars.
The responsibility for overseeing and operating the Perseverance rover lies with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), under the auspices of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California, acting on behalf of NASA.