Mars rover captures first sound of dust devil on Red Planet

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — What does a dust devil look like on Mars? A NASA rover happened to have its microphone on when a swirling tower of red dust passed directly overhead, recording the din.

It’s about 10 seconds of not only rumbling gusts of up to 25 mph, but also the slamming of hundreds of dust particles against the Perseverance rover. Scientists released the first audio of its kind on Tuesday.

According to the researchers, it is surprisingly similar to dust devils on Earth, albeit quieter since Mars’ thin atmosphere produces quieter sounds and less powerful wind.

The dust devil came and went quickly on Perseverance last year, hence the short duration of the audio, said Naomi Murdoch of the University of Toulouse, lead author of the study which appeared in Nature Communications. At the same time, the parked rover’s navigation camera captured images, while its weather monitoring instrument collected data.

“He was caught in the act by Persy,” said co-author German Martinez of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Photographed for decades on Mars but never heard of until now, dust devils are common on the Red Planet. This one was about average: at least 400 feet high and 80 feet wide, traveling at 16 feet per second.

The microphone picked up 308 pulses of dust as the dust devil passed by, said Murdoch, who helped build it.

Given that the rover’s SuperCam microphone is on for less than three minutes every few days, Murdoch said it was “certainly lucky” that the dust devil appeared on Sept. 27, 2021. She believes it there was only a 1-in -200 chance of capturing dust devil audio.

Of the 84 minutes collected in her first year, there is “only one dust record”, she wrote in an email from France.

That same microphone on Perseverance’s mast provided the first sounds from Mars — namely the Martian wind — shortly after the rover landed in February 2021. It followed with audio from the rolling rover and its companion helicopter, the little Ingenuity, flying nearby, as well as the crackle of the rover’s rock-zapping lasers, the main reason for the microphone.

These records allow scientists to study Martian wind, atmospheric turbulence and now dust movement like never before, Murdoch said. The results “demonstrate how valuable acoustic data can be in space exploration.”

Searching for rocks that may contain signs of ancient microbial life, Perseverance has so far collected 18 samples from Jezero Crater, once the scene of a river delta. NASA plans to return these samples to Earth within a decade. The Ingenuity helicopter logged 36 flights, the longest lasting nearly three minutes.

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