Space

May 9, 2012

NASA Mars spacecraft detects large changes in Martian sand dunes

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed that movement in sand dune fields on the Red Planet occurs on a surprisingly large scale, about the same as in dune fields on Earth.

This is unexpected because Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth, is only about one percent as dense, and its high-speed winds are less frequent and weaker than Earth’s.

For years, researchers debated whether or not sand dunes observed on Mars were mostly fossil features related to past climate, rather than currently active. In the past two years, researchers using images from MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera have detected and reported sand movement.

Now, scientists using HiRISE images have determined that entire dunes as thick as 200 feet are moving as coherent units across the Martian landscape. The study was published online today by the journal Nature.

“This exciting discovery will inform scientists trying to better understand the changing surface conditions of Mars on a more global scale,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program in Washington. “This improved understanding of surface dynamics will provide vital information in planning future robotic and human Mars exploration missions.”

Researchers analyzed before-and-after images using a new software tool developed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. The tool measured changes in the position of sand ripples, revealing the ripples move faster the higher up they are on a dune.

The study examined images taken in 2007 and 2010 of the Nili Patera sand dune field located near the Martian equator. By correlating ripples’ movement to their position on the dune, the analysis determined the entire dunes are moving. This allows researchers to estimate the volume, or flux, of moving sand.

“We chose Nili Patera because we knew there was sand motion going on there, and we could quantify it,” said Nathan Bridges, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and lead author of the Nature paper. “The Nili dunes also are similar to dunes in places like Antarctica and to other locations on Mars.”

The study adds important information about the pace at which blowing sand could be actively eroding rocks on Mars. Using the new information about the volume of sand that is moving, scientists estimate rocks in Nili Patera would be worn away at about the same pace as rocks near sand dunes in Antarctica, where similar sand fluxes occur.

“Our new data shows wind activity is indeed a major agent of evolution of the landscape on Mars,” said Jean-Philippe Avouac, Caltech team leader. “This is important because it tells us something about the current state of Mars and how the planet is working today, geologically.”

Scientists calculate that if someone stood in the Nili Patera dunes and measured out a one-yard width, they would see more than two cubic yards of sand pass by in an Earth year, about as much as in a children’s sand box.

“No one had estimates of this flux before,” said Bridges. “We had seen with HiRISE that there was dune motion, but it was an open question how much sand could be moving. Now, we can answer that.”

Scientists will use the information to understand broader mysteries on Mars, like why so much of the surface appears heavily eroded, how that occurred, and whether it is a current process or it was done in the past. Scientists can now point to sand flux as a mechanism capable of creating significant erosion today on the Red Planet.

The HiRISE camera provides unprecedented resolution in studying the Martian landscape. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages MRO for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. HiRISE is operated by the University of Arizona and was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

SpaceX completes first milestone for Commercial Crew Transportation System

NASA has approved the completion of SpaceX’s first milestone in the company’s path toward launching crews to the International Space Station from U.S. soil under a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract with the agency. During the Certification Baseline Review, SpaceX described its current design baseline including how the company plans to manufacture its Crew Dragon spacecraft...
 
 
XCOR Aerospace/Mike Massee

XCOR announces further progress on the XCOR Lynx spacecraft

XCOR Aerospace/Mike Massee The XCOR Lynx suborbital rocketplane under construction as of December 2014. Fuselage, cockpit and Carry-through-spar are bonded, propulsion system test-mounted, sans propellant pumps.   MOJAVE, ...
 
 
Image courtesy of NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle

NASA’s Kepler reborn, makes first exoplanet find of new mission

Image courtesy of NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle The artistic concept shows NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2. Using publicly available data, astronomers have confirmed K2&...
 

 
NASA illustration

NASA, planetary scientists find meteoritic evidence of Mars water reservoir

This illustration depicts Martian water reservoirs. Recent research provides evidence for the existence of a third reservoir that is intermediate in isotopic composition between the Red Planetís mantle and its current atmosphe...
 
 
Lockheed Martin photograph

Lockheed Martin-built MUOS-3 satellite encapsulated in launch vehicle fairing

Lockheed Martin photograph The U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System-3 satellite (above) is encapsulated in its payload fairings for a scheduled Jan. 20, 2015 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. MUOS ope...
 
 
NASA photograph

NASA’s Orion arrives back at Kennedy

NASA photograph NASA’s Orion spacecraft returned to the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida Dec. 18, 2014. The spacecraft flew to an altitude of 3,600 miles in space during a Dec. 5 flight test designed to stre...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>