Posted at 12:03 PM ET, 03/08/2012

Space weather? As solar storm hits, a Martian mini-tornado is caught on camera

As Earthlings worry over the image of a solar storm currently on its way to disrupt our power grids, space-lovers are delighting over another image of the weather farther way — on Mars.


A towering dust devil casting a serpentine shadow over the Martian surface (NASA - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has caught a Martian mini-tornado on camera, during a late-spring, breezy afternoon in the Amazonis Planitia region of the planet. The length of the twister’s shadow, created by the afternoon sun, shows that the dust plume reached more than half a mile in height, according to NASA. The plume is about 30 yards in diameter.

Dust devils have shown up on Martian imagery for more than 30 years, MSNBC’s Photoblog reports. In some images, the landscape of the Red Planet is seen criss-crossed by the dust devil’s tracks. A 2005 time-lapse view of multiple dust devils on Mars was made into a brief, haunting black and white movie.

Like dust devils on Earth, Martian mini-tornadoes are made when the surface is warmed by the sun, air rises and spins, and dust is kicked up into the spinning column.

While the solar storm currently heading toward Earth is considered “space weather,” the mini-tornado on Mars is not. Space weather is a term used to describe changing environmental conditions in space, such as magnetic fields, radiation and solar storms. Those changing conditions can disrupt GPS systems, radio signals, and other technology, just as Thursday’s solar storm is predicted to do.

While space weather certainly happens on the Red Planet, which is substantially more exposed to the elements, a mini-tornado doesn’t qualify. Post Science reporter Brian Vastag says the dust devils can simply be dubbed an example of “Martian weather.”

See more dust devils at NASA’s Web site.

By  |  12:03 PM ET, 03/08/2012

Tags:  National, Mars, space weather, tornado, solar storm

 
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