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NASA's Opportunity rover captures image of Martian dust devil

A serendipitous photo taken by the NASA rover captured a swirling dust devil on Mars. 

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    NASA's Opportunity Mars Rover Tracks
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NASA's Mars rover Opportunity is no storm chaser.

A photo snapped by Opportunity Friday (April 1) shows the six-wheeled robot's tracks in the foreground and a Martian twister off in the distance, perhaps giving viewers the impression that the rover is in full retreat from a tornado.

But Opportunity is not making a run for it. For one thing, the twister is a dust devil, not a true tornado of the type that can wreak havoc here on Earth. And with a top speed of just 0.1 mph (0.16 km/h) — and a minimum 8-minute round-trip communication delay between Opportunity and its handlers — fleeing is never really an option for the rover.

So, the newly released image is just a nice, and fortuitously captured, tableau of the Red Planet's 14-mile-wide (22 km) Endeavour Crater.

Dust devils are common on Mars, as they are on Earth. These spinning columns of air, which can carry dust high up into the atmosphere, are driven by solar heating and therefore are most common on warm, sunny days.

The golf-cart-size Opportunity rover landed on Mars in January 2004, a few weeks after its twin, Spirit. Both robots began hunting for signs that liquid water once flowed across the planet, as part of a surface mission originally envisioned to last just three months.

Spirit and Opportunity found plenty of such evidence, and kept on exploring long after their warranties expired. Spirit was declared dead in 2011, and Opportunity is still going strong, poking around the rim of Endeavour Crater.

In the summer of 2014, Opportunity broke the record for the greatest distance traveled on the surface of a world other than Earth — 24.2 miles (39 kilometers), which was set by the Soviet Union's remotely controlled Lunokhod 2 moon rover back in 1973. Opportunity's odometer currently reads 26.53 miles (42.69 km), NASA officials said.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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Copyright 2016 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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