Audio from a Martian dust devil captured for the first time

Perseverance's recording may only sound like a strong gust of wind, but scientists can glean much more.

dima_zel via Getty Images

NASA announced today that the Perseverance rover has captured audio from a Martian dust devil for the first time. But the clip not only treats us to the novelty of hearing an extraterrestrial vortex; it could also help scientists better understand how dust might affect future Mars missions.

The rover's microphones picked up the dust devil on September 27th, 2021. To the casual ear, it sounds similar to a microphone picking up a wind gust on Earth, but scientists can learn much more. “As the dust devil passed over Perseverance we could actually hear individual impacts of grains on the rover,” Naomi Murdoch, planetary scientist and the author of new report, told The Washington Post. “We could actually count them.”

Dust is a significant factor in planning for Mars missions. It can erode a spacecraft’s heat shields, damage scientific instruments, incapacitate parachutes and smother solar panels.

Scientists estimate the recorded whirlwind measured about 82 feet wide by 387 feet high. (Although that may sound intimidating, this relatively minor storm didn’t damage the rover.) As you can hear below (via Science News), the clip includes a brief pause in the turbulence as the dust devil’s eye passes over the rover.

Perseverance also captured images (also included in the recording) of the approaching storm. Scientists had to coordinate their instruments to boost the odds of recording a storm. The rover only records sound snippets lasting under three minutes and only does so eight times per month. That meant timing them for when dust devils are most likely to hit while pointing its cameras where they’re most likely to approach. In this case, that preparation — and no small degree of luck — paid off.

“I can’t think of a previous case where so much data from so many instruments contributed to characterizing a single dust devil,” said John Edward Moores, a planetary scientist at York University. “Had the [camera] been pointing in a different direction or the microphone observation been scheduled just a few seconds later, key pieces of the story would be missing. Sometimes it helps to be lucky in science!”

The roughly 10-ft.-long Perseverance rover launched on July 30th, 2020 and touched Martian soil on February 18th, 2021. NASA uses the vehicle to explore the Jezero crater and search for signs of ancient microbial life as part of the Mars 2020 mission.