A NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has picked up strange claw-like marks on the planet’s surface, revealing more details about the meteorological phenomenon.
Images compiled by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show the paths of dust devils through the sand dunes in Galle Crater – also known as the “Happy Face Crater” because of the location of the mountain clusters within them.
Martian dust devils were first discovered in 1985 by the Viking Orbiter and have since been studied in order to better understand Mars’ climate.
NASA explained: “On Mars, as is the case on Earth, dust devils are whirlwinds caused by sunlight that lead to a rise in the Earth’s temperature, which leads to the rise of the air with convection that gained heat from the earth.”
“Observations of Martian dust demons provide information about wind directions and the interaction between the surface and the atmosphere.”
Unlike tornadoes, dust devils occur on sunny days and are not usually associated with storms.
NASA has previously observed dust devils up to 20 km high.
The most recent images were taken in September 2018 but have just been published by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
The unusual formations are the result of dark dust under lighter surface dust caused by whirlwinds.
“Our goal is to observe the effects of the Dark Dust Demon on the bright sand dunes that have a strange distribution in Galle Crater,” said a description of the photos on the University of Arizona website.
“Sand dunes appear to be eroding (outcrops or strata?) With canyons coming from southern dunes. The color contrast between sand dunes and dust devil paths may provide information for understanding dune formation and dust demon initiation.”
The study of dust devils can inform scientists of surface changes on Mars and give clues to weather patterns.
Understanding how dust moves at the surface can explain how and where sand dunes might form, allowing space agencies and companies to better plan landing sites and even potential areas for future colonies.