NASA’S Curiosity Rover Snaps Fantastical Shots Of Martian Sand Dunes

It’s a turning point in history. NASA’S Mars rover, Curiosity, has taken some wonderful, awe-inspiring photos of large and active sand dunes on the Red Planet, beaming the martian images back to Earth for all of humankind to enjoy.

The images reveal an area on Mars called the dark Bagnold Dunes, a band of dark sand dunes that line the southwestern flank of Mount Sharp, a layered mountain within the Gale Crater. The rover has been examining the area for several weeks in an investigation of the planet’s sand dunes, as Christian Science Monitor recently reported.

On Monday, Jan. 4, NASA officials wrote a description of the new photos, which the rover took between Dec. 17 and 21.

“The mission’s dune-investigation campaign is designed to increase understanding about how wind moves and sorts grains of sand, in an environment with less gravity and much less atmosphere than well-studied dune fields on Earth.

“The Bagnold Dunes 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 meter, per Earth year,” agency officials added.

In the photos, people can see depictions of Bagnold’s Namib Dune, which is said to rise at least 13 feet (4 meters) from the surrounding landscape. It may actually be up to 17-feet-tall and moves around 3 feet, with the wind, each Earth year, according to composite satellite images. The Bagnold field is also located on the northwestern side of Mount Sharp, which is 3-miles-high.

The Curiosity rover was sent to Mars in August 2012. Its initial job was to determine if the martian planet could have, at one time, supported microbial life, and it soon did uncover evidence of an ancient lake and stream system near its landing site. The rover set out for the foothills of Mount Sharp in July 2013, and reached its based in September 2014.

The breathtaking photographs of the dark sand dunes are the first-ever, close-up photos of extraterrestrial sand dunes. Curiosity honed in on the Namib Dune and went around in a full circle to take pictures of each side of the sand structure. An added bonus? The rover provided an amazing 360 degree panoramic image of the entire Red Planet landscape.

How are martian sand dunes formed?

As SpaceFlight Insider shares, one trait that sets true dunes apart from other wind-shaped bodies of sand is a steep and downward slope called a slip face. At the slip face, sand that blows across a windward side of a dune suddenly becomes sheltered from the wind by the dune. Sand falls from the air and continues to accumulate on the slope until it becomes steepened and flows down the face of the dune.

The investigation of the dunes has been said to be designed to increase our Earthling understandings of how wind can move and sort grains of sand in an environment with less gravity and atmosphere than the sand dune fields of Earth. The images Curiosity has taken reveal that the area in which the Bagnold Dunes sit is migrating by as much as 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year.

“We’ve planned investigations that will not only tell us about modern dune activity on Mars but will also help us interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago,” shared Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Though reports show that Curiosity has not caught a sand-slide in action, images taken of the Namib Dune slip face can tell scientists where such slides may have occurred previously.

Who knows what wonders Curiosity will discover next?

[Photo by NASA]