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Close encounters

·1 min

Probing soil for water and life hasn’t kept NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander from doing some sightseeing on the red planet. The stationary probe has detected a surprising number of dust devils since touching down near Mars’s north pole on 25 May. The dervishes have come so close to the lander that its instruments have been able to record sudden air-pressure drops as they pass by. Mission scientists think the twisters are caused by the 60° C temperature swings between martian days and nights. Still, the alien dust devils are no match for their earthbound cousins; wind-speed instruments aboard Phoenix have clocked their velocity at only about 18 kilometers per hour versus up to 300 kph for terrestrial twisters.