There are lots of cool sights to see here on planet Earth, but our Solar System is filled with planets that are just as interesting, and we’re just now getting a chance to see them.
This stunning image of sandy dunes on Mars is a great example. The photo was snapped by the HiRISE camera built into NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and it’s immediately apparent that what you’re looking at is otherworldly. The sandy crescents lay atop a dry, jagged surface thought to be lava rock that poured across the surface long ago.
The dunes you see here are known as “barchan dunes,” and we have similar features here on Earth. NASA offers a brief explanation of exactly how they form:
The orientation of these dunes tells us that the prevailing wind blows from right to left (east to west). The wind is continuously moving sand grains up the longer dune slope, towards the top. The small ripples on the slope are caused by this movement. When the sand grains arrive at the top, they fall down the steeper and shorter slope, which as a consequence, has no ripples. It is this gradual sand movement that causes the dunes to slowly move over time.
The image itself has a scale of around 10 inches per pixel, and is just the latest image of the region, called Nili Patera, to be shot by the MRO and released by NASA.
Images like this are pure eye candy, but they can also offer important insights into Martian weather, giving scientists an idea of how erosion from wind and other weather events affects the surface of the planet.
If mankind is ever to walk on Mars and perhaps even set up a permanent colony there, we’re going to need to know as much about the planet’s surface as possible. High-resolution photographs of the surface made possible by the HiRISE camera are invaluable tools in that regard.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is another one of NASA’s Mars all-stars, having outlived its primary mission by a full decade. Originally launched back in 2005, the spacecraft was only slated for two years of service, but has exceeded those expectations by a mile.