NASA announced today that the Perseverance rover has recorded audio from a dust devil on Mars for the first time. But the clip doesn’t just treat us to the novelty of hearing an alien whirl; It could also help scientists better understand how dust could affect future Mars missions.
The rover’s microphones picked up the dust devil on September 27, 2021. To the casual ear, it sounds similar to a microphone picking up a gust of wind on Earth, but scientists can learn a lot more. “When the dust devil Perseverance passed, we could actually hear discrete grain impacts on the rover,” said Naomi Murdoch, planetary scientist and author of the new report The Washington Post. “We could actually count them.”
Dust is a major factor in planning Mars missions. It can erode a spacecraft’s heat shields, damage scientific instruments, disable parachutes, and suffocate solar panels.
Scientists estimate the recorded cyclone was about 82 feet wide and 387 feet tall. (While that might sound intimidating, this relatively small storm did not damage the rover.) As you can hear below (via science news), the clip includes a brief pause in the turbulence as the dust devil’s eye flies overhead.
Perseverance also captured images (also included in the recording) of the approaching storm. Scientists had to coordinate their instruments to increase the likelihood of registering a storm. The rover only records audio snippets that are less than three minutes long, and only eight times a month. That meant timing them so dust devils were most likely to strike while aiming their cameras at where they were most likely to approach. In this case, this preparation – and last but not least the luck – paid off.
“I can’t think of any previous case where so much data from so many instruments helped characterize a single dust devil,” said John Edward Moores, a planetary scientist at York University. “Had the [camera] Pointing in a different direction or setting the microphone observation just a few seconds later would miss key elements of the story. Sometimes it helps to be lucky in science!”
The approximately 10-foot Perseverance rover was launched on July 30, 2020 and touched down on Martian soil on February 18, 2021. NASA is using the vehicle to explore Jezero Crater looking for signs of ancient microbial life as part of the Mars 2020 mission.
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