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Starts With A Bang

Mostly Mute Monday: Curiosity’s first visit to the Martian Dunes

If you expected them to be like Earth’s dunes, prepare to be surprised!

“Actually I think Art lies in both directions — the broad strokes, big picture but on the other hand the minute examination of the apparently mundane. Seeing the whole world in a grain of sand, that kind of thing.” –Peter Hammill

In order to create sand dunes, a planet needs two things: sand grains of varying sizes and winds capable of carrying them.

A close-up of the dunes from the Curiosity rover. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSL Curiosity Rover.

While dunes have been well-studied on Earth, we’ve never visited active ones on another planet until now.

Close-up photograph of the dunes taken with the MASTCAM instrument. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSL Curiosity Rover.

Mars has less than 1% of Earth’s atmosphere, yet the winds can move at speeds up to 60 mph (100 kph), a hostile environment for static structures.

The shifting martian dunes that were the subject of Curiosity’s visit. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSL Curiosity Rover.

On occasion, wind storms can encircle the entire planet, and dust devils can reshape the terrain.

A dust devil on Mars, as photographed by the Opportunity rover. Image credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS, via Twitter at

The dunes Curiosity is visiting are found as it ascends Mount Sharp , between lower and higher altitudes.

The sand dune Bagnold, with the imprint of Curiosity’s rover wheel in the sand. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSL Curiosity Rover.

These dunes are active, having shifted by multiple meters over the few years we’ve observed them.

A full-color view of the rocky terrain of Mount Sharp, with the darker, lower dunes in the foreground. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSL Curiosity Rover.

By roving through them and analyzing them in a hands-on fashion, Curiosity aims to discover a number of properties about them.

The varied sands in the martian dunes glitter in the sunlight on the Martian surface, next to Curiosity’s tracks and chassis. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSL Curiosity Rover.

What types of minerals are the martian dunes made of? How finely-and-coarsely grained are the sands? And what chemical (or organic) compounds are inside?

An annotated view of sand dune Namib on Mars, as imaged by Curiosity. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSL Curiosity Rover.

Finally, Curiosity will compare less active dunes with more active ones, and look for physical differences.

The first image of Mount Sharp ever taken from the Martian surface, on August 6th, 2012, from the Curiosity rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

After this exploration mission, Curiosity is poised to continue its ascent up Mount Sharp.

Mostly Mute Monday tells the story of a single astronomical phenomenon or object primarily in visuals, with no more than 200 words of text.

This post first appeared at Forbes. Leave your comments on our forum, check out our first book: Beyond The Galaxy, and support our Patreon campaign!

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