By: SPACE.com Staff
Published: 03/08/2012 10:18 AM EST on SPACE.com
A dust devil on Mars has been caught in the act of tearing across the Red Planet in a spectacular new photo by a NASA spacecraft.
The Martian twister rises up on a huge column of dust more than half a mile (800 meters) high in the new image, which was captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Feb. 16 as the spacecraft passed over the Amazonis Planitia region of northern Mars.
The 100-foot-wide (30-m) dust devil curves slightly, pushed by a westerly breeze. Tracks from previous whirlwinds are also visible in the Mars twister picture, showing up as streaks on the Red Planet's surface. The dust devil's shadow can also clearly be seen in the photo.
Dust devils occur on both Earth and Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dirt they suck up off the ground.
Unlike tornados, dust devils usually form on clear days when the ground soaks up a lot of heat from the sun. If conditions are right, heated air near the surface may begin to rotate as it rises through small pockets of cooler air just above it, NASA researchers explained in a statement.
Just as on Earth, Martian winds are powered by solar heating. Although Mars is now near aphelion — the time of Martian year when the Red Planet is farthest from the sun — it still receives enough solar energy to drive dust devils across its surface.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been examining Mars with six science instruments since arriving at the Red Planet in March 2006. The spacecraft continues to provide valuable insights into the planet's ancient environment and how processes such as wind, meteorite impacts and seasonal frosts still affect the surface of Mars today, NASA officials said.
NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in September 2005. The $720 million mission is NASA's youngest Mars orbiter flight to date, but has beamed more data to Earth than all other interplanetary missions combined.
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LOOK: Pictures of the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity Rover:
This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Curiosity is being tested in preparation for launch in the fall of 2011. In this picture, the rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm, which extends about 2 meters (7 feet). Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. Also, a drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis. (NASA)
Technicians at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, put the instrument mast and science boom on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, known as Curiosity, through a series of deployment tests.
This photograph of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, was taken during testing on June 3, 2011 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Curiosity is being tested in preparation for launch in the fall of 2011. In this picture, the mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. This mast supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera, or "eyes," for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the ChemCam instrument, which is a laser that vaporizes material from rocks up to about 9 meters (30 feet) away and determines what elements the rocks are made of. (NASA)
This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration. (NASA)
The payload fairing containing MSL rolls out of the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. (NASA)
The payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is attached to the Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (NASA)