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Dust devil on Mars: NASA photo reveals towering whirlwind on alien world

A dust devil is shown on the surface of Mars in this photo captured by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Oct. 1, 2019.
A dust devil is shown on the surface of Mars in this photo captured by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Oct. 1, 2019. University of Arizona

A new photo captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a massive dust devil churning across the wind-blasted Martian surface.

University of Arizona researchers captured the photo last October with the orbiter’s HiRISE camera and released the image to the public on Monday.

The dust devil in the photo is approximately 50 metres wide and a staggering 650 metres tall, according to a post by researcher Sharon Wilson on the university’s website. The whirlwind and its shadow are clearly visible because Mars has no clouds.

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“Dust devils are rotating columns of dust that form around low-pressure air pockets, and are common on both Earth and Mars,” Wilson writes. “This Martian dust devil formed on the dust-covered, volcanic plains of Amazonis Planitia.”

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Dust devils are formed when the hot ground generates a towering column of rising, spinning air, which carries dust and debris high above the surface. They differ from tornadoes in that tornadoes require a storm cloud to form.

NASA spacecraft and landers have had a few memorable encounters with dust devils over the years.

“These devils are useful for cleaning off dust from the panels of solar-powered spacecraft,” NASA writes on its website. “Thus, it’s important to understand how often they occur.”

Dust storms will also be a hazard for humans when — or if — they ever make it to Mars.

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