This past Friday I was fortunate enough to reunite with my friend Dr. Steve Metzger of the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) to participate in another field season of dust-devil-chasing with a platoon of Mars researchers. The crew this year included Dr. Asmin Pathare of PSI, Dr. Lori Fenton of the SETI Institute, Tim Michaels of the Southwest Research Institute, graduate students from the University of Michigan, and a bevy of others from institutions both local and abroad.
As always, it was blisteringly hot and completely awesome.
The objective? Characterize meteorological conditions and geomorphological events here, (particularly dust devils,) so that we might better understand them on Mars.
Despite how insignificant dust seems, the way that dust is moved in a planetary atmosphere affects most everything, from cloud formation, global warming, and weather patterns to the raw density of the air. And, aside from the more intellectually-lofty goals of understanding the history of Mars and understanding climate here on Earth, NASA really cares about the density of the Martian atmosphere simply because we need to know that to calculate how to land things there.
The location, Eldorado Valley, is a vesicular–basalt-ridden desert playa between Las Vegas and Boulder City, Nevada that just happens to be a spitting analog for several aspects of the Martian surface.
Fortuitously, it also just happens to be in my neighborhood.
In the arsenal of instrumentation today were several different equipment packages and setups, from massive meteorological towers to smaller future Mars-lander instrument stations, and from sensor-laden “storm chaser” trucks and remote operated mini-trucks to observation waypoints complete with various types of recording equipment. Believe you me, the science was out in force.
I partnered up with Steve in the chase truck, running as data-logging copilot for a portion of the day as we barreled across the playa, jumping on leads from the spotters and chasing down dust devils in a mad attempt to swing in front of them, thereby getting a clean slice of data through the vortex interiors with the sensors on the outside of the truck.
Despite it being windy enough to threaten blowing dust devils apart, we managed to nail quite a few by the end of the day, soaking up gobs of data on pressure, temperature, and the sediment content of the air.
I even had the chance to fire off one of the military-grade smoke grenades I brought along (to see if they actually work) in preparation for a future trip I’ve been planning. While I didn’t get this one into a dust devil, the plan is to try and lob a grenade right in front of an approaching devil and record video of the inflow patterns across the leading edge of the vortex. In my book it never hurts to test mathematical models with some real-world experiments.
In any event, it was a thrill and quite a privilege to jump into this, my third time out with Dr. Metzger in five years. The team will be out in the field all of this next week, and with any luck I might end up back out with them next Friday.
Is it Mars? Not quite. But it is definitely close enough to whet the appetite.