NASA's Perseverance rover has captured rare footage of a towering twister, or "dust devil," dancing across the surface of Mars. The dusty vortex is taller than the average-size U.S. tornado and five times taller than the Empire State Building, according to NASA.
The rover spotted the swirling storm on Aug. 30 on the 899th Sol, or Martian day, of its mission on the Red Planet. The wandering robot filmed the dust devil for around 84 seconds as it raged on top of a nearby ridge around 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away. A time-lapse of the dust devil, showcasing the action at 20 times speed, was shared online by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) on Sept. 29.
The towering twister was moving at around 12 mph (19 km/h) and was roughly 200 feet (61 meters) wide. It reached a max height of 387 feet (118 m) in the video, but the top part of the storm has been cut off, meaning its true height is unknown. However, the researchers estimate that it was exceedingly tall.
"We don’t see the top of the dust devil, but the shadow it throws gives us a good indication of its height," Mark Lemmon, a planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a member of the Perseverance science team, said in a statement. "Most are vertical columns. If this dust devil were configured that way, its shadow would indicate it is about 1.2 miles [2 km] in height."
Dust devils form when rising cells of warm air mix with descending columns of cooler air. They also form on Earth, particularly in dry and dusty places like Arizona, and typically range from between 10 and 300 feet (3 and 91 m) wide and 500 to 1,000 feet (152 and 305 m) tall, according to the National Weather Service.
In general, Martian dust devils are weaker and shorter than the dusty vortexes found on Earth, according to the statement. But clearly, the recently filmed whirlwind was much taller. Based on the researchers' estimate, the vortex was taller than average fully-fledged U.S. tornados, which grow to between 1,640 to 4,920 feet (500 and 1,500 m), according to FOX Weather.
It is unclear why this particular dust devil was so tall. But unlike an Earth tornado, which can only grow as tall as the clouds above it, there is nothing impeding the height of a Martian dust devil.
In a 2018 study published in the journal Icarus, researchers estimated that on any given day there could be at least one dust devil per square kilometer on Mars, which equates to around 145 million a day. As a result, dust devils are likely the main transporter of dust across Mars.
Because of how dust devils reshape the Martian environment, both the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are constantly on the lookout for nearby twisters. So far, Perseverance has witnessed dozens of dust devils, according to Live Science's sister site Space.com.
In 2021, for the first time ever, researchers recorded the sound of a dust devil that passed directly over Perseverance. This enabled the rover to track how particles move within the vortex and provided clues as to how they form and grow.
The dust devil is not the only unusual extraterrestrial twister that was caught on camera this year. In March, an enormous "solar tornado," that stood taller than 14 Earths, raged on the sun's surface for more than three days after a plume of plasma got caught in a rapidly rotating magnetic field.
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Harry is a U.K.-based staff writer at Live Science. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter (Penryn campus) and after graduating started his own blog site "Marine Madness," which he continues to run with other ocean enthusiasts. He is also interested in evolution, climate change, robots, space exploration, environmental conservation and anything that's been fossilized. When not at work he can be found watching sci-fi films, playing old Pokemon games or running (probably slower than he'd like).