NASA’s Perseverance rover is just starting its Martian adventure. It landed on the red planet last month and just recently took its first short drive on the surface. NASA is still completing system checks, but the robot is already sending back fascinating data. Case in point: Without even looking for one, Perseverance spotted its first dust devil on Mars.
A dust devil looks a bit like a tornado, but the two phenomena have different origins and mechanics. On Earth, tornados are associated with larger atmospheric circulation from thunderstorms. Mars doesn’t have that, but its thin carbon dioxide atmosphere can become warmer at ground level under certain conditions. When such a pocket of air rises through the colder air above it, you get a dust devil.
Perseverance’s first Mars cyclone appears for a few seconds in the background of one of the many visual records beamed back in recent weeks. The vortex spins past, partially blocked by the rover’s robotic arm. NASA posted the uncropped video, followed by one that’s zoomed in to show the dust devil more clearly.
Perseverance was never in danger. Even on Earth with its thicker atmosphere, dust devils are rarely strong enough to cause damage. Mars has an atmosphere that’s barely 1 percent as dense as Earth’s, making such vortexes even less perilous. However, Mars is prone to other atmospheric dangers, like the global dust storm that killed the Opportunity rover a few years back. Perseverance is nuclear-powered like Curiosity, so it should be able to weather such a storm.
See the zoomed-in view of this dust devil on Mars. pic.twitter.com/4ILDqoejZ8
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 16, 2021
Perseverance builds on the success of Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012. The new rover has a suite of instruments that will help it search for signs of ancient life in Jezero Crater, which was a lake several billion years ago. The river delta that fed it is still visible on the surface, and scientists believe that’s one of the best places to look for fossilized life. Perseverance is also the first phase in a trio of missions that will return samples of Mars to Earth. It will collect the samples and stow them in small tubes. Eventually, a mission will come along to collect those tubes and blast them into space. NASA has already awarded a contract for the so-called Mars Ascent Propulsion System (MAPS). That won’t happen for a few years, but if Curiosity is anything to go on, Perseverance will still be chugging long into the future.
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