Sand dunes on Mars are fascinating. They shift and move in different ways than they do on Earth, and they can grow to much more immense sizes than on our own planet. Several conditions contribute to the gigantic sand dunes and large fields of dunes that can form on the Red Planet, including its low gravity and air pressure.
Seasonal changes affect the Martian sand dunes, as well.
There may be no life on Mars, but there’s still a lot going on there. The Martian surface is home to different geological process, which overlap and even compete with each other to shape the planet. Orbiters with powerful cameras give us an excellent view of Mars’ changing surface.
Springtime on Earth can be a riotous affair, as plants come back to life and creatures large and small get ready to mate. Nothing like that happens on Mars, of course. But even on a cold world like Mars, springtime brings changes, though you have to look a little more closely to see them.
Lucky for us, there are spacecraft orbiting Mars with high-resolution cameras, and we can track the onset of Martian springtime through images.
Mars is a sandy planet and the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has given us tons of beautiful pictures of Martian sand dunes. But Mars’ dunes are much different than dunes here on Earth. Their movement is governed by different factors than Earth dunes.
Furthermore they whip up the dust more easily in the lower gravity field on Mars compared to Earth. Mars gravity is about one third of Earth’s.
Right now it’s summer inside the rovers southern hemisphere landing site at Gale Crater. And summer is the windiest time of the Martian year.
“Dust devils are whirlwinds that result from sunshine warming the ground, prompting convective rising of air that has gained heat from the ground. Observations of Martian dust devils provide information about wind directions and interaction between the surface and the atmosphere,” as described by researchers.
So now is the best time to observe and photograph the dusty whirlwinds in action as they flitter amazingly across the craters surface carrying dust in their wake.
Therefore researchers are advantageously able to utilize Curiosity in a new research campaign that “focuses on modern wind activity in Gale” on the lower slope of Mount Sharp — a layered mountain inside the crater.
Indeed, this past month Curiosity began her second sand dune campaign focusing on investigating active dunes on the mountain’s northwestern flank that are ribbon-shaped linear dunes.
“In these linear dunes, the sand is transported along the ribbon pathway, while the ribbon can oscillate back and forth, side to side,” said Nathan Bridges, a Curiosity science team member at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, in a statement.
These new dunes are different from those investigated during the first dune campaign back in late 2015 and early 2016 that examined crescent-shaped dunes, including Namib Dune in our mosaic below.
The initial dune campaign actually involved the first ever up-close study of active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth, as I reported at the time.
By snapping a series of targeted images pointed in just the right direction using the rovers mast mounted navigation cameras, or navcams, the researchers have composed a series of ‘Dust Devil’ movies – gathered together here for your enjoyment.
“We’re keeping Curiosity busy in an area with lots of sand at a season when there’s plenty of wind blowing it around,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
“One aspect we want to learn more about is the wind’s effect on sorting sand grains with different composition. That helps us interpret modern dunes as well as ancient sandstones.”
The movies amply demonstrate that Mars is indeed an active world and winds are by far the dominant force shaping and eroding the Red Planets alien terrain – despite the thin atmosphere less than 1 percent of Earth’s.
Indeed scientists believe that wind erosion over billions of years of time is what caused the formation of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater by removing vast amounts of dust and sedimentary material — about 15,000 cubic miles (64,000 cubic kilometers) — as Mars evolved from a wet world to the dry, desiccated planet we see today.
Gale crater was originally created over 3.6 billion years ago when a gigantic asteroid or comet smashed into Mars. The devastating impact “excavated a basin nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide. Sediments including rocks, sand and silt later filled the basin, some delivered by rivers that flowed in from higher ground surrounding Gale.”
Winds gradually carved away so much sediment and dirt that we are left with the magnificent mountain in view today.
The whirlwinds called “dust devils” have been recorded moving across terrain in the crater, in sequences of afternoon images taken several seconds apart.
The contrast has been enhanced to better show the dust devils in action.
Watch this short NASA video showing Martian Dust Devils seen by Curiosity:
Video Caption: Dust Devils On Mars Seen by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. On recent summer afternoons on Mars, navigation cameras aboard NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover observed several whirlwinds carrying Martian dust across Gale Crater. Dust devils result from sunshine warming the ground, prompting convective rising of air. All the dust devils were seen in a southward direction from the rover. Timing is accelerated and contrast has been modified to make frame-to-frame changes easier to see. Credit: NASA/JPL
The team is also using the probes downward-looking Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera for a straight down high resolution up-close view looking beneath the rover. The purpose is to check for daily movement of the dunes she is sitting on to see “how far the wind moves grains of sand in a single day’s time.”
These dune investigations have to be done now, because the six wheeled robot will soon ascend Mount Sharp, the humongous layered mountain at the center of Gale Crater.
Ascending and diligently exploring the sedimentary lower layers of Mount Sharp, which towers 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Martian sky, is the primary destination and goal of the rovers long term scientific expedition on the Red Planet.
“Before Curiosity heads farther up Mount Sharp, the mission will assess movement of sand particles at the linear dunes, examine ripple shapes on the surface of the dunes, and determine the composition mixture of the dune material,” researchers said.
Curiosity is also using the science instruments on the robotic arm turret to gather detailed research measurements with the cameras and spectrometers.
As of today, Sol 1625, March 2, 2017, Curiosity has driven over 9.70 miles (15.61 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 391,000 amazing images.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
For a supposedly dead world, Mars sure provides a lot of eye candy. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRise) aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is our candy store for stunning images of Mars. Recently, HiRise gave us this stunning image (above) of colorful, layered bedrock on the surface of Mars. Notice the dunes in the center. The colors are enhanced, which makes the images more useful scientifically, but it’s still amazing.
HiRise has done it before, of course. It’s keen vision has fed us a steady stream of downright jaw-dropping images of Elon Musk’s favorite planet. Check out this image of Gale Crater taken by HiRise to celebrate its 10 year anniversary orbiting Mars. This image was captured in March 2016.
The MRO is approaching its 11 year anniversary around Mars. It has completed over 45,000 orbits and has taken over 216,000 images. The next image is of a fresh impact crater on the Martian surface that struck the planet sometime between July 2010 and May 2012. The impact was in a dusty area, and in this color-enhanced image the fresh crater looks blue because the impact removed the red dust.
These landforms on the surface of Mars are still a bit of a mystery. It’s possible that they formed in the presence of an ancient Martian ocean, or perhaps glaciers. Whatever the case, they are mesmerizing to look at.
Many images of the Martian surface have confounded scientists, and some of them still do. But some, though they look puzzling and difficult to explain, have more prosaic explanations. The image below is a large area of intersecting sand dunes.
The surface of Mars is peppered with craters, and HiRise has imaged many of them. This double crater was caused by a meteorite that split in two before hitting the surface.
The image below shows gullies and dunes at the Russell Crater. In this image, the field of dunes is about 30 km long. This image was taken during the southern winter, when the carbon dioxide is frozen. You can see the frozen CO2 as white on the shaded side of the ridges. Scientists think that the gullies are formed when the CO2 melts in the summer.
The next image is also the Russell Crater. It’s an area of study for the HiRise team, which means more Russell eye candy for us. This images shows the dunes, CO2 frost, and dust devil tracks that punctuate the area.
One of the main geological features on Mars is the Valles Marineris, the massive canyon system that dwarfs the Grand Canyon here on Earth. HiRise captured this image of delicate dune features inside Valles Marineris.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is still going strong. In fact, it continues to act as a communications relay for surface rovers. The HiRise camera is along for the ride, and if the past is any indication, it will continue to provide astounding images of Mars.
Just in time for the holidays, NASA’sCuriosity rover is celebrating Christmas 2015 at a Red Planet Paradise – spectacular “Namib Dune.” And she marked the occasion by snapping her first ever color self-portrait with the mast mounted high resolution Mastcam 34 mm camera.
After many months of painstaking driving, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has reached the edge of a massive field of spectacular rippled sand dunes located at the base of Mount Sharp that range up to two stories tall. And she has now begun humanity’s first up-close investigation of currently active sand dunes anywhere beyond Earth.