Aftermore than six years roaming the surface of Mars, NASA's Mars rover Opportunityhas spotted its first dust devil on the red planet.
Unlikeits robotic twin on Mars Spirit ? a prolific dust devil photographer ?Opportunity's attempts to catch the tornado-like wind formations had repeatedlycome up empty. That is, until now.
Ina July 15 photo taken with its mast-mounted panoramic camera, Opportunitycaptured a tall column of swirling dust. [Opportunity rover's dust devil photo.]
"Thisis the first dust devil seen by Opportunity," said Mark Lemmon of TexasA&M University, College Station, a member of the rover science team, in astatement.
Opportunitytook the photo while looking east-southeastward, following a drive that tookthe rover approximately 230 feet (70 meters). The photo's original use was tohelp plan for the next drive.
Whilethis was the rover's first dust devil sighting, Opportunity's beleaguered twinSpirit has seen dozens of Mars dust devils from its location halfway around the planet.
Theterrain at Spirit's exploration site inside Mars' Gusev Crater is rougher anddustier than the Meridiani Planum region where Opportunity is working, Lemmonexplained. So, vortices of wind form more readily and raise more dust at Gusev,he added.
Spacecraftorbiting Mars have photographed tracks left by dust devils near Opportunity,but overall, they are scarcer at Meridiani than Spirit's location. It is alsopossible that swirling winds at Meridiani may be more common than visible signsof them, but that they occur where there is no loose dust to kick up, roverscientists said.
Infact, just a day before Opportunity photographed the dust devil, Martian windhelped clean some of the dust off of the rover's solar array, which increasedelectricity output from that array by more than 10 percent.
"Thatmight have just been a coincidence, but there could be a connection,"Lemmon said.
NASA'sPhoenix Mars Lander also spotted dustdevils in the Martian arctic during the lander's 2008 mission.
TheMars rover team is resuming systematic checks for afternoon dust devils, usingOpportunity's navigation camera, for the first time in about three years.
Opportunity and Spirit arrived on the surface of Mars in 2004, for missionsoriginally designed to last for three months. Opportunity landed on Mars onJan. 25, 2004 (Eastern Time).
Spirittouched down ahead of Opportunity, but fellsilent on March 22 of this year, when itskipped a planned communications session with controllers on Earth. Spirit hasbeen out of communication since then, entering a low-power hibernation mode asthe Martian winter set in and temperature dropped, leaving the rover withinsufficient power to properly function.
However,Spiritmay wake up with the arrival of the Martian spring, mission managers havesaid.
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Denise Chow is a former Space.com staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.