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Curiosity latest: MARTIAN DUST DEVILS assail prowling robot rover

Secrets of the Gale Crater probed

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Dust-devil tornadoes have swirled around Mars rover Curiosity during its time on the planet's surface, its weather-watching instrument reports.

The nuclear truck comes equipped with the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) that has spotted transient whirlwinds in the Gale Crater on Mars.

Boffins have looked at REMS' data for more than 20 atmospheric events and seen at least one characteristic of a mini-tornado in each one. REMS looks out for brief dips in air pressure, changes in wind direction and speed, rises in air temperature or dips in ultraviolet light to pick out whirlwinds and two of the events showed all five of these characteristics.

Mars researchers have seen dust-devil tracks and shadows on Mars from orbit before, but never in the Gale Crater. The boffins reckon its possible that Gale Crater vortexes aren't so readily seen because they don't lift as much dust as they do elsewhere on the planet.

"Dust in the atmosphere has a major role in shaping the climate on Mars," said Manuel de la Torre Juarez, investigation scientist for REMS, which Spain provided for the mission. "The dust lifted by dust devils and dust storms warms the atmosphere."

The dominant wind direction in Gale has surprised some of the boffins, who thought that the effects of the slopes of Mount Sharp would produce north-south winds. Instead, east-west winds are most common, which may have something to do with the rim of the crater.

Air pressure shows both seasonal and daily rhythms, another factor that will help researchers to figure out how atmospheric cycles work now so they can guess if past cycles helped to support microbial life. ®

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