A Martian dust devil approximately 12 miles high (20 kilometers) was spotted whirling its way along the Amazonis Planitia region of Northern Mars just a few weeks ago.
It was imaged by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Despite its rather impressive height, the plume is little more than three-quarters of a football field wide (70 yards, or 70 meters).
Of course, dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. Essentially, dust are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. However, unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.
The image was snapped during late northern spring, two weeks short of the northern summer solstice, a time when the ground in the northern mid-latitudes is being heated most strongly by the sun.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been exploring the Red Planet with six science instruments since 2006. Now in an extended mission, the orbiter continues to analyze the planet’s ancient environments and how processes such as wind, meteorite impacts and seasonal frosts continue to affect the Martian surface today.