Once it was rare to get a glimpse of the surface of another planet in our solar system. Now, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover, we not only get near daily images from Mars, but we even get to see its weather.
Perseverance caught the first ever video of gusts lifting a massive martian dust cloud last year. And now, the rover has captured the swirling whirlwinds of dust devils on the Red Planet. According to a NASA press release “at least four whirlwinds pass Perseverance on a typical Martian day.”
A paper detailing all the weather phenomena that Perseverance has detected was published May 25 in Science Advances.
“Every time we land in a new place on Mars, it’s an opportunity to better understand the planet’s weather,” said the paper’s lead author, Claire Newman of Aeolis Research. And Jezero Crater seems to be a virtual cornucopia of martian weather.
Even though dust and wind can be found all over Mars, Jezero Crater in particular seems to have an influx of both. The researchers think this might be a result of it being near a so-called “dust storm track” running along the planet’s surface, where storm winds frequently loft dust into the air.
This is exciting for scientists because there’s no telling what other kind of weather Perseverance might see. “We had a regional dust storm right on top of us in January, but we’re still in the middle of dust season, so we’re very likely to see more dust storms.”
But there is a drawback to the increased weather. Unlike InSight — which is facing a permanent retirement due to dust accumulation — Perseverance relies on nuclear power instead of solar. This means that the rover’s power levels aren’t affected even if it gets coated in dust, but its instrumentation is still vulnerable to airborne debris. Already, the increased dust has damaged the wiring for rover’s two Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) sensors. MEDA is what enables Perseverance to make weather measurements, such as wind speed and direction, temperature, and humidity.
“We collected a lot of great science data,” said Manuel de la Torre Juarez, MEDA’s deputy principal investigator at JPL. “The wind sensors are seriously impacted, ironically, because we got what we wanted to measure.”
This isn’t the first time that one of NASA’s rovers was bested by dust-filled winds. Curiosity’s own wind sensors were also damaged by a whirlwind. NASA added additional coating to MEDA’s wiring, but the reinforcement was no match for Jezero Crater’s weather. Now, NASA is trying to find software solutions that could allow the sensors to keep working.