Sunday, December 13, 2015

NASA Mars Rover Reaches First Sand Dunes Ever Studied Beyond Earth

Bagnold Dunes on Mars
This image shows the rippled surface of the first Martian sand dune ever studied up close fills this view of "High Dune" from the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity rover.  This site is part of the "Bagnold Dunes" field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp.  The dunes are active, migrating up to about one yard or meter per year.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has begun an up-close investigation of dark Martian sand dunes which reach up to two stories tall and are as broad as a football field. The dunes are on the rover's trek up the lower portion of a layered mountain.

Curiosity has been working on Mars since early August 2012. It reached the base of Mount Sharp in 2014 after fruitfully investigating outcrops closer to its landing site and then trekking to the mountain. The main mission objective now is to examine successively higher layers of Mount Sharp.

The rover's planned investigations include scooping a sample of the dune material for analysis with laboratory instruments inside Curiosity. No Mars rover has previously visited a sand dune, as opposed to smaller sand ripples or drifts. Also, no active dunes have been visited anywhere in the solar system besides Earth.

"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," said Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena, California.

Grains of sand where NASA's Curiosity Mars rover was driven into a shallow sand sheet near a large dune are depicted in the above image.  The disturbance by the wheel exposed interior material of the sand body, including finer sand grains than on the undisturbed surface. Sunlight is coming from the left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS