Mars Orbiter Spots Dust Devil Tracks On The Red Planet

While the Martian dust devils are an imposing sight, the beautifully intricate tracks left in their wake are equally mesmerizing.

Dust devil tracks on Mars' Chalcoporos Rupes region, as imaged by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft.
HRSC/Mars Express Orbiter / ESA

While the Martian dust devils are an imposing sight, the beautifully intricate tracks left in their wake are equally mesmerizing.

Keeping a watchful eye over the red planet from space, the Mars Express Orbiter has recently come across some interesting dark features while hovering over the planet’s southern hemisphere. From its vantage point above Mars, the spacecraft spotted what scientists refer to as dust devil tracks — “wispy, filament-like streaks” sprawling across the dusty Martian terrain.

The eye-catching features were imaged from various angles by the European satellite during a flyby of Mars’ Noachis quadrangle – an ancient stretch of land thought to be one of the oldest parts of the Martian landscape. The stunning snapshots were unveiled last week by the European Space Agency (ESA) and give a detailed view of the narrow dark lines left behind by the dust devils that frequently rage across the surface of Mars.

According to the ESA, the photos were captured by the Mars Express spacecraft in early January, when the satellite had its “eye” fixed on Chalcoporos Rupes, an escarpment region found in the southern Martian highlands. Taken by the spacecraft’s High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on January 3, the snaps reveal “a curving, looping, crisscrossing web of dust devil tracks” — one of the many types of fascinating marks left by Martian winds on the dust-blanketed surface of the red planet.

Dust devils are an equally common sight both on Earth and on Mars. Reigning over desert terrains, dust devils are massive vortices of hot air that look very much like miniature tornadoes. These “phantoms from the sand,” as NASA has described them, spark into existence under the effect of the sun’s warming rays, rising up from the heated ground as columns of hot air.

“As the sun heats up the Martian ground during the day, vortices form that lift warm air from near the surface, whipping up dust as they do so, shaping and sculpting it into swirling, column-shaped, tornado-like whirlwinds,” explains the ESA.

Given that Mars is essentially a global desert, dust devils are a very common occurrence on the red planet — and tend to form on a much larger scale than on Earth. As NASA points out, large dust devils on Mars can easily be 10 times as big as their terrestrial counterparts, quickly growing into massive whirling columns of sand that are 100 feet wide and a half-mile high.

A Martian dust devil winding its way along the Amazonis Planitia in the north of the red planet, imaged by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2012.
A Martian dust devil winding its way along the Amazonis Planitia in the north of the red planet, imaged by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2012. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

While the dust devils themselves are an imposing sight, the tracks left in their wake are equally mesmerizing. As they swirl across the dusty surface of the planet, dust devils lift up the top, brighter layer of material, exposing the darker soil underneath – and, thereby, leaving beautiful tenuous trails on the Martian ground.

One of the images recently acquired by ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter shows a web of dark narrow tracks streaking across the pockmarked terrain of Chalcoporos Rupes. The photo captures two prominent craters and several smaller ones, with the tenuous tracks left behind by dust devils taking the spotlight on the ochre-hued surface of the Martian terrain.

“Both the craters visible in this frame boast dense, dark, eye-catching patches of rippling sand dunes, while the surrounding terrain is decorated with a broad web of dunes and signs of past dust devil activity,” details the ESA in the photo release.

Dust devil tracks on Mars' Chalcoporos Rupes region, as imaged by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft.
Plan view of the dust devil tracks of Chalcoporos Rupes. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The agency also released a color-coded topographic view of Chalcoporos Rupes, showing the effects of wind activity in the area. The lower altitude parts of the region are depicted in blue and purple hues, whereas higher altitude areas show up in lighter shades of white, yellow, and red.

Color-coded topographic view of Chalcoporos Rupes on Mars.
Color-coded topographic view of Chalcoporos Rupes on Mars. ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

A second photo beamed back by the Mars Express Orbiter shows an oblique perspective view of the dust devil tracks at Chalcoporos Rupes. The image was captured by way of the nadir and color channels of the HRSC instrument.

“The nadir channel is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, as if looking straight down at the surface,” noted the ESA.

Dust devil tracks on Mars' Chalcoporos Rupes region, as imaged by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft.
Perspective view of the dust devil tracks at Chalcoporos Rupes on Mars. HRSC/Mars Express Orbiter / ESA

The new photos showcasing dust devil tracks at Chalcoporos Rupes come just two weeks after another European mission spotted similar marks in a different part of the planet. In mid-March, the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter sent back a haunting image of a “hairy blue spider” crawling along the Terra Sabaea ridge of Mars, as The Inquisitr reported at the time. That particular feature, which the ESA has described as an “impressive pattern of dust devil tracks,” is thought to have been created by “hundreds or even thousands of small Martian tornadoes.”