Enter sandman: Curiosity snaps Mars dunes

5 Jan 2016

NASA’s hardest working rover, Curiosity, has been on a new sand dune investigating mission for a short while now, sending back some amazing photographs from the Red Planet.

Looking into the makeup of Martian sand dunes, Curiosity has previously found wavy ripples on westward slopes. But now, having rounded a particularly eye-catching dune and peered up to the skies, it has shot images that have led to a steep learning curve for NASA’s scientists.

The whole mission is investigating how wind on Mars manipulates the sand, with an environment with less gravity and much less atmosphere far removed from the well-studied dune fields on Earth.

The Bagnold Dunes, which is where Curiosity is currently roving, are active. Sequential images taken from orbit over the course of multiple years show that some of these dunes are migrating by as much as a yard, or metre, per Earth year.

The money shot would be capturing a sand slide in action, but Curiosity hasn’t quite captured anything like that yet – NASA expects this is due to the time of year.

The Bagnold Dunes are near Mt Sharp, named after geologist Robert Sharp, although its official name is Aeolis Palus. The dune that Curiosity has focused most of its attention on lately is called Namib.

This photo shows the downwind side of a dune about 13 feet high, taken a week before Christmas:

Mars Curiosity

This image combines multiple snaps from Curiosity’s Mastcam, revealing fine details of the downwind face of Namib Dune. Sand on this face of the dark dune has cascaded down a slope of about 26º to 28º:

Mars Curiosity

Finally, this epic shot is a panoramic view of the dune, including a portion of Mount Sharp on the horizon:

Mars Curiosity

All images are via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and, if you click on them, can be viewed in a larger format.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic