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Dust Devil Study Could Help Us Understand Mars

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 5:56 am / September 8, 2016

A dust devil raises a column of dirt from a field.

From Wikipedia

They say the devil is in the details. Or in the case of new research by Boise State physicist Brian Jackson, the details are in the devils. Dust devils, that is.

Jackson recently received funding from the Idaho Space Grant Consortium to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle through dust devils on a field site near Boise in order to better understand their structure and dynamics.

Of the five ISGC awards this year, three went to Boise State programs. Awardees are Jackson, “Dust Devil Survey Using an Instrumented UAV”; Steve Swanson, Boise State University Undergraduate Microgravity Research Team; and Mike Callahan, “Investigating Formamide Chemistry under Plausible Prebiotic Conditions.”

Dust devils are those ubiquitous swirling columns of dirt that form in fields when hot air near the surface rises through cooler, low-pressure air above it. On Earth they can typically last just a few minutes and travel only yards. But on Mars, where they tend to be 10 times larger and faster, they can last several minutes and travel hundreds of feet.

Portrait of Brian Jackson.

Brian Jackson

“On Mars, dust devils probably dominate the supply of atmospheric dust, influencing climate, and may pose a hazard to future human exploration, and analog studies of terrestrial devils have elucidated these dynamic phenomena,” Jackson wrote in his grant proposal.

To get a clearer idea of how air pressure, temperatures, wind and dust profiles relate to the devils’ ability to move dust, Jackson proposes flying a UAV into dust devils to record data, while also photographing them from a variety of angles in order to measure size and determine how the dust devils are related to the ambient conditions.

Due to the low air pressure on Mars, the dust devils don’t have the ability to actually blow things over, but they can still cause problems by depositing dust on solar panels or interfering with electrical equipment. Understanding how they work can influence future exploration efforts on the Red Planet.

The study involves two Boise State undergraduate students and will rely on advanced numerical analysis techniques, as well as rigorous field work.