Artist concept of the Mars Perseverance rover

Martian dust devil sounds captured by Perseverance rover

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa has released a 10-second, first-of-its-kind audio recording, in which the sound of an 18-metre (390-feet) whirlwind pushing hundreds of dust particles against the Martian rover can be heard.

The Perseverance rover happened to have its microphone on when the dust devil - with its 25mph winds speeds - passed over it.

Scientists have long had evidence of the existence of dust devils on Mars, as they have been photographed for years. However, this 10-second audio clip is the first time that humans have been able to hear what they sound like. 

The clip is evidence of an average-range dust wind, at least 400 feet tall and 80 feet across and travelling at five metres per second. The microphone picked up 308 dust pings as the dust devil whipped by. 

According to the research team, the Martian dust devil sounds similar to those occurring on Earth, although it is quieter since Mars’ thin atmosphere makes for more muted sounds and less forceful wind.

The researcher's findings regarding the dust devil and the clues it provides about Martian weather have been published in a new study in Nature Communications, alongside the audio clip. 

The dust devil sounds can be heard here. 

Analysis of the Perseverance audio recording of a dust devil

Analysis of the Perseverance audio recording of a dust devil / Nasa

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/INTA-CSIC/Space Science Institute/ISAE-Supaero

When the rover Perseverance landed on Mars, it was equipped with the first working microphone on the planet’s surface, which allowed it to capture the whirlwind sounds. 

“We hit the jackpot”, the study’s lead author Naomi Murdoch of the University of Toulouse, told AFP, describing the moment when the rover’s microphone picked up the noise made by the dust devil overhead.

The dust devil came and went quickly last year, hence the short length of the audio, Murdoch added. At the same time, the navigation camera on the parked rover captured images, while its weather-monitoring instrument collected data.

“It was fully caught red-handed by Persy,” said co-author German Martinez of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Perseverance rover microphone

Perseverance rover microphone

Image credit: Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It was the innovative audio system, known as SuperCam2 (pictured above), which allowed scientists to record the first-ever sound recording on Mars on 19 February 2022, the day after its arrival. These sounds fall within the human audible spectrum, between 20Hz and 20kHz. 

“We can learn a lot more using sound than we can with some of the other tools,” said Roger Wiens, also co-author of the study. “They take readings at regular intervals. The microphone lets us sample, not quite at the speed of sound, but nearly 100,000 times a second. It helps us get a stronger sense of what Mars is like.”

Given that the rover’s SuperCam microphone is turned on for less than three minutes every few days, Murdoch said it is “definitely luck” the dust devil appeared when it did on September 27 2021.

She estimated there was just a one-in-200 chance of capturing dust-devil audio. Of the 84 minutes collected in the rover’s first year, there’s “only one dust devil recording”, she added. 

However, obtaining such a recording was not completely unexpected as the team has observed evidence of over 100 dust devils in Jezero Crater, where Perseverance is located, since the rover’s landing.

A towering dust devil casts a serpentine shadow over the Martian surface in this image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

A towering dust devil casts a serpentine shadow over the Martian surface in this image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter./ Nasa- JPL Caltech

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The sound recording of the dust devil, taken together with air pressure readings and time-lapse photography, is expected to help scientists understand the Martian atmosphere and weather.

The impact of the dust made 'tac, tac, tac' sounds, which will let researchers count the number of particles to study the whirlwind’s structure and behaviour. 

The information indicated that future astronauts will not have to worry about gale-force winds blowing down antennas or habitats. Moreover, it also provides substantial evidence of a long-held hypothesis: namely, that the Martian breezes are responsible for blowing grit off the solar panels of other rovers, helping them last longer than originally planned. 

“Those rover teams would see a slow decline in power over a number of days to weeks, then a jump. That was when wind cleared off the solar panels,” Wiens said.

In contrast, the solar panels of Nasa’s InSight lander are “covered in dust” because it is located at a spot where it cannot take advantage of these natural Martian cleaners. 

Understanding why this happens could help scientists build a model of dust devils that could predict where the whirlwinds might strike next.

Perseverance collected its first sample of Martian rock from the planet’s surface in September 2021, having made its landing on the planet’s surface in the previous February.

The rover will spend the coming years scouring for signs of ancient microbial life in a mission that will bring back samples to Earth and prepare the way for future human visitors.

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