We’re ahead of new finds on the Red Planet, as NASA’s Curiosity is investigating sand dunes on Mars on its way to Mount Sharp. The Martian rover is still active, studying, and walking around the foreign planet. It will provide with potentially vital information ahead of the manned mission to Mars planned for the 2030s.
However, that’s still a long way away, so the rover has its work cut out for it. Curiosity is starting to edge away from its initial landing in Gale Crater. The target is trekking up the 3 mile high Mount Sharp, but it will be looking around the sand dunes first. The purpose is to find as much information possible about the surface of the Red Planet.
The “High Dune” of Mars
Now, the rover is travelling around the “High Dune”, which is part of a larger system of sands called the Bagnold Dunes. They were named after a British military engineer, Ralph Bagnold, who innovated research into how winds transport sand grains in the 20th century. Mars shows an exceptional activity in that regard, and mysteriously so.
According to Nathan Bridges, from the Applied Physics Laboratory at John Hopkins’s, the dunes “have a different texture from dunes on Earth”. The sands behave differently, and the ripples are larger than those on our own planet. This requires higher wind speed.
Furthermore, the surface pressure on the Red Planet is just six tenths of 1% of that on Earth. The Martian gravity is also three times weaker, which could be just a few of the influencing factors. According to observations made by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which flies a couple of hundred of miles away from the planet, these sand dunes move around 3 feet per year.
That means that the geology of Mars is still very active.
On its way to Mount Sharp
Curiosity will have at least several weeks across the Bagnold Dunes. On its way, it will snap several more pictures, take samples of the fine grains, and will be analyzed through its internal laboratory. By understanding how the dunes behave and how they form, scientists hope they will have more answers about the rock formations around Mars. They are made from such sand dunes that turned into rock layers many years ago.
By studying how their main source acts, it could help provide more information about the Martian landscape.
The “High Dune” stands two stories tall, and shows numerous large ripples across its sandy surface. The images provided by NASA were adjusted to match the daylight on Earth for a better view. Since starting its trek across the Bagnold Dunes, Curiosity has also become the first rover to study active sand formations on a foreign planet.
Image source: mars.nasa.gov