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Dust devils race across Mars

By Tariq Malik
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Spirit caught several dust devils moving across a plain inside Mars' Gusev Crater.

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
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(SPACE.com) -- NASA's Mars rover Spirit has caught a bevy of dust devils racing across the surface of Mars, which researchers compiled into a stunning new movie.

While scaling Husband Hill at its Gusev Crater landing site, cameras aboard Spirit recorded several dust devils blowing across the Martian surface. Researchers condensed the windy devils' 12-minute, 17-second passing into a short black and white movie clip.

"Wind processes are the only active processes that we know are happening on Mars," said rover science team member Patrick Whelley, who has been studying the dust devil images, in a telephone interview. "They're short term geologically and occur...[but] they have shaped the landscape."

Although NASA released the dust devil movie on August 19, Spirit actually photographed them during its 543rd day (July 13, 2005) exploring Mars.

The images have not been processed to enhance the contrast of the dust devils.

Spirit first observed dust devils on Mars near the beginning of the region's spring season. While they increased in frequency as the season wore on, they dropped off for about two weeks during a dust storm only to return in force once it had passed, NASA researchers said.

Whelley said images from Spirit and its robotic twin Opportunity show that dust devils perform an important role in contributing to the overall dust content in Mars' atmosphere, and provide an additional tool for atmospheric modelers.

During early spring on Mars, dust devils typically wind their way from southwest to northeast across streaks that can be seen from orbit. As the season moves forward, the windy objects move from northwest to southeast in the same direction of the streaks, Mars researchers said, adding that scientists are still looking for the big dust devils that etched those streaks into the surface.



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