The Martian soundscape can be as eerily eerie as one might hope to hear on another world. The rumble of occasional meteor collisions, the groan of the shaking earth, the whisper of endless winds.
Now we get a front row seat to the roaring devil’s approach and retreat as it strolls the surface, helping drive the dust cycle through the atmosphere and around the rusty little world.
Perseverance is the first rover to reach the surface of Mars with a working microphone attached, and the instrument has been in good use since the rover’s February 2021 landing. The microphone is part of the rover’s suite of recording tools known as SuperCam.
Thanks to this innovative piece of technology we can hear for the first time what a small whirlwind of dust sounds like on another planet. It’s weird, short, and pretty cool all at the same time.
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“We can learn a lot more with sound than we can with some other tools,” says planetary scientist Roger Wiens of Purdue University in Indiana.
They take readings at regular intervals.
“The microphone allows us to sample, not quite at the speed of sound, but approximately 100,000 times per second. It helps us get a stronger sense of what Mars is like.”
Perseverance’s mic actually only records for three minutes a day: this is the first time it’s been played when a dust devil wandered past, though other instruments have recorded evidence of nearly 100 more whirlwinds. Where the rover is in Jezero Crater.
A dust devil passed over the rover 27 September 2021 – The 215th Martian day (or sol) of her mission. Scientists estimate that the size of the dust devil was about 25 meters (just over 80 ft) across, while it would have been at least 118 meters (387 ft) high.
By combining photographs with readings of wind, pressure, temperature and dust, Perseverance was also able to track the speed of a miniature Martian hurricane as it passed, which reached a distance of 19 kilometers (12 miles). per hour.
“Encountering a serendipitous dust devil demonstrates the potential of acoustic data to resolve the structure of fast winds in the Martian atmosphere,” Wiens and colleagues wrote in their paper.
The surrounding winds could have been faster, and in the recording, you can hear the silence that reflects the calm eye of this particular little stormtrooper. Part of what makes the new information valuable is how it compares to events like this one on the ground.
“The winds are fast—about 25 miles an hour, but about what you’d see in a dust devil on the ground,” Wiens says. “The difference is that the air pressure on Mars is so much lower that the wind, while at the same speed, is pushing about 1 percent more pressure at the same speed as the wind would have returned on Earth.”
“It’s not a strong wind, but it’s clearly enough to knock particles of grit into the air to create a dust devil.”
All of the data we currently collect on Mars is useful for several reasons. First, it gives us a better idea of how the planet evolved, which in turn gives scientists clues about how other planets in the universe evolved as well.
Those other planets include Earth, and since Mars is our closest planetary neighbor, our histories are closely intertwined. A comparison of Earth and Mars gives us a better idea of the past and future of both planets.
There is also humanity’s ambition to one day set foot on Mars. Recordings like these indicate the kind of conditions we can expect, and how those conditions can be protected or taken advantage of — the way wind might naturally blow away solar panels, for example.
“Just like on Earth, there is different weather in different regions on Mars,” Wiens says. “Using all of our instruments and tools, especially the microphone, helps us get a concrete idea of what it would be like to be on Mars.”
Research published in Nature Communications.
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