NASA's Mars Opportunity rover has captured a rare image of a Martian dust devil traveling across the surface of the Red Planet. The rover craned back to take in the view as it scaled the southern edge of the Marathon Valley in search of fresh minerals to mine.
Dust devils are a common occurrence back here on Earth, and have been repeatedly spotted by spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. The mini twisters have also been recorded by Curiosity and Opportunity's twin rover Spirit during its tenure at Gusev Crater prior to losing contact in Mar. 2010.
The devils are created when heat from the Sun impacting on the Martian surface causes a column of warm air to rise fast enough to drag along some of the dust grains covering the ground. While the winds that whip up the devils are believed to be too weak to pose a threat, being created as they are on a planet with a relatively feeble atmospheric pressure compared to that of our home planet, the detritus carried in the maelstrom could interfere with future intrepid explorers.
Devils have the potential to severely reduce visibility, and in so doing heighten environmental dangers. Furthermore it has been theorized that fast moving dust could become electrically charged, causing an arcing reaction with an astronaut's spacesuit and creating electromagnetic interference.
The specimen captured by Opportunity's navigational camera (NavCam) on Mar. 31. 2016 appears to be little more than a baby. Devils have been observed from orbit reaching 12 miles (20 km) high, and have been known to cluster in groups of eight.
Anyone familiar with the exploration of Mars, or even just the recent Ridley Scott adaptation of Andy Weir's The Martian, will know that missions to the Red Planet are measured in sols. Opportunity is currently battling through sol 4,336, a full 4,246 solar days past its anticipated expiry date, and still sending back stunning imagery of the Martian landscape. How's that for engineering excellence?
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