NASA's new jacked-up Mars explorer, the Mars Science Laboratory, blasted off the earthface on Saturday and is set to rendezvous with the reddest of planets in August 2012. Aboard the interplanetary vessel is the rugged buggy Curiosity, a laser-and-robotic-arm-swinging Mars rover that looks like something you'd use to perform doughnuts in Half-Life 2. (See a great animation of Curiosity in action here.)
What will Curiosity encounter when it drops down from a sky crane into Gale Crater? To the scientifically trained, it will with luck find evidence of microbial life. But to people just looking through the vehicle's viewfinder it will sure look like a whole lot of nothing. There are few places in the solar system that match the desolate, Old West feeling that the Martian surface imparts. The most striking thing about the rusty wasteland appears to be the regular appearance of dust devils, a phenomenon this blog covered earlier in a swell little video on alien weather.
The devils appear in packs that wrap up light dust before dissipating back into the ether. The Mars rover Spirit came across such a dust-devil storm while making its rounds in 2005. Here's what it looked like (this might take a minute to load):
Now let's go left to right:
This big guy in the background looks like it might measure at EF-0 strength or higher here on earth:
And now let's colorize it for maximum whooaa factor. These whirling dervishes are traversing the Gusev Crater, likely a dried-up lake that scientists believe was created by an asteroid impact 3 to 4 billion years ago:
Spirit caught the Gusev dust storm during the Martian spring and summer months of 2005. Of the 533 devils the rover observed in the ancient crater, most had diameters between 32 and 66 feet. A few behemoths stretched out to about 900 feet wide, though, and chugged along at an impressive 70 m.p.h. The dirt farmers of the future are going to have a rough time terraforming Mars if this weather doesn't change soon. Perhaps another WPA-style public works program will be in order to avoid a second, alien-world Dust Bowl?