Science

For the first time, hear a Mars rover hit by a 387-foot dust devil

For the first time, hear a Mars rover hit by a 387-foot dust devil

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Scientists have seen plenty of them dust devils on Mars, and now, for the first time, they’ve heard one. The vortex hit directly NASA’s Perseverance roverdusting the spacecraft and whispering into a microphone the team had cleverly included in their instrument pack.

The wealth of data from the encounter has excited scientists, who are well aware of the great influence that Martian dust has on the planet’s climate. Fine-grained particles can also damage science instruments on Mars landers and rovers and potentially clog solar panels to the point of uselessness. Studying the rover’s hard recordings may provide insight into how dust could affect ongoing Mars missions, and perhaps even future human exploration.

The sound of the dust devil, published on Tuesday to accompany an article in the journal Nature Communications, is subtle. It’s crisp and percussive, like radio static, though one might more generously imagine a breeze blowing away some distant palm fronds.

Then comes a few seconds of silence as the dust devil’s eye passes over the rover. The sound returns for another couple of seconds as the back wall of the dust devil spins over the rover again. Then it’s all over and Mars is silent again.

NASA’s Perseverance rover recorded the sound of a dust devil on Mars. Video: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/INTA-CSIC/Space Science Institute/ISAE-SUPAERO (Video: NASA)

This wasn’t exactly an “extreme weather” event. Mars has a negligible atmosphere, about 1% as dense as Earth’s, so storms there don’t howl The rover was not damaged.

Still, there’s plenty of signal in this brief burst of noise and in the visual images taken by the SuperCam instrument atop the rover. Researchers estimate that the dust devil was about 25 meters (82 feet) wide and 118 meters (387 feet) tall. It is taller than the Statue of Liberty, pedestal included.

“As the dust devil passed over Perseverance, we could feel the individual impacts of the grains on the rover,” said Naomi Murdoch, a planetary scientist at ISAE-SUPAERO, an aerospace engineering institute in Toulouse, France. and author of the new report. “We could actually count them.”

A dust devil is a bit like a miniature storm cell. It usually appears during the middle of the day as warm air rises from the surface. A scientist who wants to speak more technically might call this a dust-laden convective vortex. Dust isn’t the cause of the vortex, it’s just along for the ride.

Murdoch said the team’s success in capturing the sound of a dust devil reflects both luck and preparation. The rover’s microphone makes recordings that last just under three minutes, and it does so only eight times a month. But the recordings are timed for when the dust devils are most likely to occur, and the rover cameras are pointed in the direction where they are most likely to be seen.

“Then we’ll just have to cross our fingers,” he said.

This clearly did the trick, because Perseverance managed to capture the dust devil through multiple instruments, recording the drop in air pressure, the temperature changes, the sound of the grains impacting, all finished with images that show the size and shape of the vortex. .

“I can’t think of a previous case where so much data from so many instruments has contributed to characterizing a single dust devil,” John Edward Moores, a planetary scientist at York University, said in an email after reviewing the new paper . He said the team was lucky to have all the overlapping observations.

“I had the [camera] been pointing in a different direction or the microphone observation was scheduled just a few seconds later, key pieces of the story would be missing. Sometimes it helps to be lucky in science!”

The Mars rover uncovers intriguing clues in the search for life beyond Earth

As the Perseverance team cheers their encounter with wind, the calm weather has turned into one problem for a NASA robotic spacecraft other than Mars. The InSight Landingwhich played over 2,000 miles away in November 2018, has instruments to explore seismicity and the interior of the planet.

InSight has lasted a couple of years beyond its main mission timeline, but is now in the final weeks of its scientific life because its solar panels are 90 percent covered in dust. What you need is a direct hit by a dust devil, because these vortices are capable of cleaning solar panels.

“A dust devil is like a little vacuum cleaner running across the surface,” said Bruce Banerdt, a planetary geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and InSight’s principal investigator.

But InSight has not received a visit from a devil capable of cleaning its arrays. Banerdt said there is currently enough power to run a seismometer for eight hours, but then it has to rest for three days while the batteries recharge.

“We’re still limping along at this point,” he said.

Murdoch said this scattered pattern of dust devils appearing on Mars remains mysterious. Planetary scientists also can’t predict when the red planet will have one global dust stormhe said, citing “our poor understanding of how and when dust is lifted from the surface of Mars.”

But that is changing, he hopes, as the microphone developed by his team continues to pick up the sounds of this distant desert planet.



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