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Posted at 02:44 PM ET, 11/16/2012

Curiosity rover detects ‘dust devils’ on Mars

Since we last checked in with NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, the rover team has switched back to Earth time and the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument has “tasted” the planet’s soil.

The rover has taken multiple scoops of soil from the planet’s surface and has not moved for more than a month, analyzing the Martian environment with numerous instruments on board. Most recently the rover has detected changes in the atmospheric pressure as the sun rises and sets, with pressure rising during the day and dropping at night. The rover has even detected small ”dust devils”. The events have yet to be caught on camera.

The Curiosity rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the set of thumbnail images stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait in this Oct. 31, 2012, (Sol 84) image courtesy of NASA. (NASA - REUTERS)
According to NASA’s Manuel de la Torre Juarez, dust plays an important role in the formation of the Martian climate because it warms the atmosphere. Data from more than 20 events with at least one characteristic of a whirlwind were recorded by the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS). Two of the events had all the signs of a whirlwind.

The rover is expected to make its way toward Mount Sharp in the coming days and will continue to monitor the atmosphere. “If we don’t see a change in wind patterns as Curiosity heads up the slope of Mount Sharp, that would be a surprise,” said Claire Newman, a REMS investigator at Ashima Research in Pasadena.

The rover is on a two-year mission to explore the planet and determine whether the building blocks of life have ever existed there. The rover made its much-anticipated landing on the planet in August.

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