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Perseverance rover captures a Martian dust cloud forming for first time

Mars is an inhospitable place for many reasons, from the freezing temperatures to the radiation which bombards its surface. But one other feature of the planet makes it tricky to get by there as well: It is covered in dust. Fine dusty particles cover the planet’s surface, and these are periodically whipped up into massive dust storms which can cover whole regions or even, on occasion, the entire planet.

Now, new research using data from the Perseverance rover has looked at how these dust storms form, and images from the rover’s navigation cameras caught a gust of wind lifting up a dust cloud for the first time — which you can see in this NASA animation.

The researchers looked at weather data collected since the rover arrived on Mars in February 2021, particularly from its cameras and its weather instrument, the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA). MEDA collects data on factors like temperature, pressure, and wind speed, and also uses its sensors to analyze dust particles. It has been collected data on the Jezero crater, where the rover is located, which is a particularly dusty environment.

“Jezero Crater may be in one of the most active sources of dust on the planet,” said Manuel de la Torre Juarez, MEDA’s deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “Everything new we learn about dust will be helpful for future missions.”

The researchers saw the dust swirling in hundreds of small formations called dust devils, and estimated that around four of these whirlwinds pass Perseverance on an average day. As well as these smaller events, occasionally larger gusts of wind can lift the dust into large clouds — the biggest of which they observed to cover 1.5 square miles. Although the big events are less common, they lift so much more dust that they may be responsible for moving more dust that the smaller, more frequent whirlwinds.

They also looked at why the Jezero crater specifically is so prone to dust activity. They think that the roughness of the surface in the crater could be helping to lift up the dust, making it a more actively dust region. They also expect there to be lots more dust activity in the future.

“Every time we land in a new place on Mars, it’s an opportunity to better understand the planet’s weather,” said the lead author of the research, Claire Newman, in the statement. “We had a regional dust storm right on top of us in January, but we’re still in the middle of dust season, so we’re very likely to see more dust storms.”

The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

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