Follow this link to skip to the main content National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
NASA Banner
NASA Mars Exploration Program
Mars Exploration Program



Promethei Terra

In December 1999, the MOC team finally had an answer! A dust devil, shown in the above figure, was caught in the act of creating a swirly, dark streak! An eerie sensation washed over the first team members who saw this picture---here was an event on Mars "caught in the act" just hours before the picture was played back to Earth. A "smoking gun."

The first dust devil seen making a streak---located in Promethei Terra---was traveling from right (east) to left (west). A columnar shadow was cast by sunlight coming from the upper left. This shadow indicates the true shape of the dust devil. The bright dust devil itself does not look like a column because the picture was taken from a camera looking straight down on it. The dust devil is less than 100 meters (less than 100 yards) wide and the picture covers an area approximately 1.5 by 1.7 kilometers (about 1 by 1 mile).

Dust devils are spinning, columnar vortices of wind that move across the landscape, pick up dust, and look somewhat like miniature tornadoes. Dust devils are a common occurrence in dry and desert landscapes on Earth as well as Mars. They form when the ground heats up during the day, warming the air immediately above the surface. As the warmed air nearest the surface begins to rise, it spins. The spinning column begins to move across the surface and picks up loose dust (if any is present). The dust makes the vortex visible and gives it the "dust devil" or tornado-like appearance. On Earth, dust devils typically last for only a few minutes.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

Full Res Image