Hit me baby one more time

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Killer electric Martian tornadoes!!

Scientists have found that dust devils can be highly electrified. Apparently when all that dust is whirling around, it creates static electricity; then tiny particles that absorb negative charge tend to rise, leaving the positive ones lower down — turning the whole thing into a big battery. When researchers have driven through dust devils in the Nevada desert, they’ve found electric fields as badass as 4,000 volts per square meter.

So now NASA scientists are wondering what this bodes for Martian probes and manned space exploration. Mars has dust devils too — in fact, the Pathfinder probe took a picture of one in 1997 (!) — so NASA geeks are already writing papers about it, as CNN reports:

“If Martian dust devils are highly electrified, as our research suggests, they might give rise to increased discharging or arcing in the low-pressure Martian atmosphere, increased dust adhesion to space suits and equipment, and interference with radio communications,” said William Farrell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Man, I love NASA. Guys get paid to sit around studying this stuff! Then again, when you’re sending billions of dollars of robotic equipment millions of miles through space, you want to think of every conceivable danger — even if that includes possibly electrified Martian dust devils.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson