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Trio of twisters spotted on Mars

NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

Three Martian whirlwinds, known as dust devils, whirl in this picture captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Feb. 11.




It's eerie enough to see one whirlwind swirling across the Martian surface, but three? Get out your 3-D glasses and spot the three dust devils rising from Amazonis Planitia, as seen by the high-resolution camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

These mini-twisters are analogous to the dust devils that are whipped up on sunny afternoons on Earth, due to the rise of hot air through a low-pressure pocket of cooler air above it. In February, the Mars orbiter spotted a couple of prominent examples of the phenomenon that rose as high as 12 miles into the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. These three dust devils aren't nearly as big, but seeing them simultaneously in one 3-D picture gives you an idea just how active the wind patterns on Mars can get.

"The active dust devils seem to float above the surface," says Arizona State University's Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the camera, known as the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment or HiRISE. "There are also some bright lines present ... those are the tracks of dust devils that passed through this region in the prior two weeks."

For more from Mars, check out the HiRISE website — and as long as you have your 3-D glasses out, take a look at HiRISE's 3-D image gallery. What? You don't have your 3-D glasses yet? This NASA webpage lists some online vendors. While you're at it, think about picking up some sun-viewing spectacles for the May 20 annular solar eclipse. On Friday, I'll be giving away a combo pack of 3-D glasses and eclipse glasses as the prize in our weekly "Where in the Cosmos" photo contest; watch for that on the Cosmic Log Facebook page.

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.