with Simon Mansfield
Dust Devils Found in Pathfinder Images
Reno - March 27, 1998 - Dust devils on the surface of Mars have been discovered in images being examined by researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno. Mars' famous dust storms - which can be seen from backyard telescopes and sensationally cover the red planet's surface every several years - may be triggered by dust devils.
"Mars' atmosphere is extremely thin and very high wind velocities are needed to pick up dust. These dust devils, or mini-twisters, cause these high winds," said professor James R. Carr of the Department of Geological Sciences at the university's Mackay School of Mines.
Stephen Metzger, a doctoral student at Nevada, made the discovery from Mars Pathfinder imagery, using methods suggested by Carr. Metzger made the discovery in images downloaded from the NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., using color filters.
By comparing and contrasting the Mars data with that from arid regions on Earth, such as Nevada, Metzger said much can be learned about local air pollution, acid rain and global climate change.
"Dust devils were thought to have been discovered by the Viking orbiter in 1976, but that was difficult to confirm," Carr said. "The significance of this discovery is that it confirms the Viking discovery and shows that dust devils are an important geological process on Mars. In fact, dust devils may be the primary soil erosion process on Mars."
Upon making the initial discovery, Metzger contacted Timothy Parker, a NASA scientist in Pasadena, and Jeff Johnson, U.S. Geological Survey scientist, in Flagstaff, Ariz., for verification and further image processing. Results of this image processing were presented Tuesday, March 17, in Houston at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
After seeing these results at last week's international gathering of planetary scientists in Houston, several NASA science teams are eager to use the dust devil images in their atmospheric science and geology research, Metzger said.
NASA officials have credited Metzger and Carr as the first researchers to discover the dust devils in Pathfinder imagery. Metzger is a NASA Fellow, funded by the University of Nevada System Space Grant Consortium. He also is involved with the Desert Research Institute, a sister institution of the University of Nevada, Reno.
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