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Nasa captures first ‘dust devil’ on Mars after ‘hitting the jackpot’

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 12/13/2022 Josie Ensor
Photo of the Perseverance rover on the planet's surface - Nasa/AP © Nasa/AP Photo of the Perseverance rover on the planet's surface - Nasa/AP

Nasa has captured the sound of a “dust devil” whirlwind on Mars for the first time, after one swept over the top of the space agency’s Perseverance rover.

By chance, a whirlwind measuring 390ft high and 82ft wide passed directly above the microphone on the rover’s SuperCam.

Common across Mars, dust devils are short-lived whirlwinds loaded with dust that form when there is a major difference between ground and air temperatures.

They are a feature in the Jezero crater, where the Perseverance rover has been operational since February 2021 – but it had never before managed to record audio of one of them.

Naomi Murdoch, a planetary researcher at France’s ISAE-SUPAERO space institute, where the SuperCam’s microphone was designed, told AFP that her team “hit the jackpot” when the rover’s microphone picked up the noise made by the dust devil overhead.

The researchers hope the recording will help to better understand the weather and climate on Mars, including how its arid surface and thin atmosphere may once have supported life.

“We hear the wind associated with the dust devil, the moment it arrives, then nothing because we are in the eye of the vortex,” said Ms Murdoch.

The sound then returns “when the microphone passes through the second wall” of the dust devil, she added.

The impact of the dust made “tac tac tac” sounds that will let researchers count the number of particles to study the whirlwind’s structure and behaviour, she said.

It sounds strikingly similar to dust devils on Earth, although quieter since the thin atmosphere on Mars makes for more muted sounds and less forceful wind, according to the researchers.

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It could also help solve a mystery that has puzzled scientists. On some parts of Mars, “whirlwinds pass by sucking up dust, cleaning the solar panels of rovers along the way,” Ms Murdoch said.

But in other areas, the whirlwinds move by without kicking up much dust. “They’re just moving air,” Ms Murdoch said, adding: “We don’t know why.”

Understanding why this happens could help scientists to build a model of dust devils so they might predict where the whirlwinds might strike next.

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