Last Monday, NASA announced that their Curiosity Mars rover would be heading to the mobile dark dunes of the red planet, to study the environment’s activity.
It will be the first time that a Mars rover is going to visit a sand dune – an activity that hasn’t been made anywhere, besides Earth. Images reported activity in the Bagnold dunes, indicating that some of them are “migrating” at a rate of 1 meter per Earth-year.
Bethany Ehlmann, from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Pasadena, California stated that they have planned a series of investigations that could give them some answers about the dune’s behavior, as well as data that could help them to interpret how these dunes, composed of sandstone layers, turned into rock years ago.
According to a press release, the Curiosity rover is 200-yards away of “Dune 1”. In the mid-time, the rover is collecting info on the area’s wind direction and speed, as it takes closer images of the environment. By using his scoop, the rover will collect samples that will later be analyzed by the rover’s internal laboratory instruments. Also, it will scuff into the dune to compare the surface with the interior.
In the past three weeks, Curiosity has driven nearly 315 meters, since it departed 18 days ago from an area where it collected two rock samples. The latest sample, called “Greenhorn”, is the ninth since the Curiosity rover landed in 2012. The goal of the mission is to understand how Mars’ previous environment changes from wet conditions to drier, and harsher conditions that no longer could sustain microbial life.
Before the mission landed, researchers from NASA analyzed images to map the region where Curiosity would land. As the mission goes, researchers have informally named Martian hills, locations and rocks to similar regions on Earth.
The difference between dunes, and any other placement of sand or dust, is that dunes, due to the action of wind, form a face steep that allows the sand to slide down. These behaviors and effects have been extensively studied on Earth since 1896, starting with the British military engineer Ralph Bagnold. It isn’t coincidence that Curiosity’s campaign is named after him.
Observations made on the Bagnold Dunes with NASA’s instruments show that the mineral composition isn’t equally distributed along the dunes, as they have also recorded movement. Researchers say the Curiosity will help them learn if the wind is sorting these minerals in the dunes, and how the wind is able to transport particles of different sizes.
“These dunes have a different texture from dunes on Earth,” Nathan Bridges, from NASA, said on the press release. “The ripples on them are much larger than ripples on top of dunes on Earth, and we don’t know why. We have models based on the lower air pressure. It takes a higher wind speed to get a particle moving. But now we’ll have the first opportunity to make detailed observations.”