Scientists can learn a great deal about Martian dust devils only by listening to them

Dust devils have played crucial roles in Mars rover missions.
Chris Young
NASA's Mars Perseverance rover.
NASA's Mars Perseverance rover.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

Scientists analyzed the sound recordings of a Martian dust devil traveling across Mars' ancient lakebed, the Jezero crater, for the first time.

The researchers carried out an analysis of multi-sensor data that suggested the dust devil was more than 118 meters (387 feet) tall. As per a press statement, the findings "may improve our understanding of surface changes, dust storms, and climate variability on Mars, which may have implications for space exploration."

Analyzing the sound of a Martian dust devil

The researchers were able to conduct their analysis, which is detailed in a paper in Nature Communications, thanks to the fact that NASA's Perseverance rover's SuperCam microphone unwittingly recorded the dust devil as it passed overhead.

They combined the sound recordings with multi-sensor data and modeling to characterize the dust devil, revealing that it was roughly 25 meters (82 feet) wide — which is ten times the width of the Perseverance rover. The new findings show that sound data can be used to determine key characteristics of dust devils on Mars.

"As the Perseverance mission continues," the press statement reads, "additional microphone recordings may provide further dust devils encounters, allowing for comparative studies to be performed between different vortices at different geographical sites."

In July last year, the Perseverance rover used its Navigation Camera (M2020) to capture images of three dust devils in the vicinity of its landing site. Purposefully capturing dust devils on video is a difficult task — dust devils typically last for less than a minute — so scientists also turn to Earth's deserts to study them and gain a better understanding of their Martian counterparts.

Preparing for crewed Mars missions

Dust devils are whirlwinds of swirling dust that is common on Mars and also occurs on Earth. They play a large role in the movement of Martian dust and are also an indicator of atmospheric turbulence. They can reach sizes of up to 1,600 meters in diameter, meaning they are important to study in the context of future crewed missions to Mars.

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In fact, NASA's Opportunity and Spirit rovers had their lives extended due to dust devils that blew the dust off of their solar panels. However, Opportunity eventually ended its mission due to a global dust storm on Mars. NASA's Insight lander is also approaching the end of its life due to dust collection on its solar panels, showing how important it is to study the movement of dust in the Martian atmosphere.

Though they are generally harmless and can be fleeting, appearing for only seconds at a time, NASA is taking the study of dust devils seriously. One scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Louis Urtecho, is building software that is capable of detecting dust-devil-induced pressure signatures automatically.

The scientists behind the new sound analysis study, meanwhile, believe their technique for analyzing dust devils could improve the scientific community's overall understanding of the processes that take place in Mars' atmosphere. This could prove to be crucial as the space industry gears up to boost human space exploration and send crewed missions to Mars at some point next decade.