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BSU physics professor studies dust devils to learn more about Mars

Posted at 10:18 PM, Aug 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-01 00:18:57-04

Physicists from Boise State University are flying drones into the eye of dust storms in hopes of learning more about Mars.The research is taking place in a desert in southeastern Oregon.

"We don't really understand very well how dust devils function, how they lift dust, all of that," said Dr. Brian Jackson, assistant professor of physics at Boise State University. 

The scientists use cameras and sensors attached to the drone to measure pressure and temperature, all while taking video. They hope to learn more about the structure of this natural phenomenon, which occurs not only here on earth but also on the red planet.

"On Mars, dust devils are actually really important for the climate. They eject a lot of dust into the atmosphere, and that dust can actually heat the atmosphere significantly," said Jackson.

Jackson says, by understanding the relationship between the dust devils' structure and dust lifting on the earth, they can find out how powerful these tornado-like storms can be on Mars. That could be helpful for astronauts who one day explore the red planet.

"One danger that one dust devil can pose is they can generate a strong electric field," explained Jackson. "So they could, for instance, short out electrical equipment on the surface. That would not be good for Mars astronauts."

The pilot program was funded by the Idaho Space Grant Consortium. Once they finish compiling all their data, Brian hopes to get more funding through NASA to do more field research. If you'd like to learn more, Brian will give a talk on his research called "Capturing Devils in the Desert," Friday, September 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Boise State University.