Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton

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Small dunes up high, big dunes down low

July 29, 2014

A piece of Mars: This 1018×1352 m (0.63×0.84 mi) dune-covered scene has split topography: the the bottom part is up on a plateau, and the upper part is in a broad valley. The dunes up on the plateau are smaller than the ones in the valley. Why? Probably because there was more mobile dune-building sediment in the valley to begin with: the dunes up high ran out of material and stopped growing, but the ones in the valley kept getting bigger. (HiRISE ESP_036795_1760, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Summery dune

July 22, 2014

A piece of Mars: Last December I blogged about a picture of a sand dune taken in early northern spring. This is the same dune, without frost, now that summer has come to the northern hemisphere and all the frost is gone. It’s quite a difference. Apparently the dunes are controlled by ice in the winter and by the wind in the summer. (HiRISE ESP_035997_2565, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

How hills change dunes

July 08, 2014

A piece of Mars: Using dunes to interpret the winds can be a tricky business. Here’s one reason why: most of the dunes here go from the upper left to lower right. But the ones inside the funky oblong crater go from the upper right to the lower left. Why? One of two reasons. Either the rim of the crater rotates the winds that blow inside, or the rim blocks one wind but lets in another that is less effective at making dunes outside. (HiRISE ESP_036934_1915, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Where is Curiosity on her 1 Mars year anniversary?

July 01, 2014

A piece of Mars: Curiosity has been trolling around on Mars for one martian year, so I think it’s time I posted an update on where it is and what it’s seeing. Right now (late June 2014), the rover is rolling across meter-sized ripples, heading south toward Mt. Sharp. In the near future there will be even more impressive ripples, and then finally the terrain will start to grow more interesting. I will post more of these in the months to come. (HiRISE ESP_029034_1750, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

In the lee

June 24, 2014

A piece of Mars: This crater (290 m or 950 ft across) is crawling with all sorts of ripples and dunes. The wind mainly blows from the top to the bottom of the frame, and it is responsible for the wonderful textures in the dark gray sand. It has also formed larger, cream-colored ripples. The creamy and dark gray sand have taken turns burying one another, like vines competing for sunlight. (HiRISE ESP_034084_1655 , NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Swirly rocks

June 18, 2014

A piece of Mars: Never mind the 4 m (13 ft) boulders that have fallen downslope, or the rippled sandy surfaces here. Look at those bright swirls in the ground. Those are the former interiors of sand dunes, which were trapped and incorporated into the bedrock (like dinosaur bones, but without so much rawr). The wind has been blowing sand around on Mars for a long, long time. (HiRISE ESP_036436_2645, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Whither the wind

June 13, 2014

A piece of Mars: Which way did the wind blow here? You can tell by looking at the dune and its ripples. The slip face (the avalanching slope of the dune) faces downwind, so the strongest wind here mainly blows toward the upper left. But that’s not the whole story, because, like on Earth, martian winds are always shifting. Recent avalanching and some ripples on the slip face show that the most recent wind blew toward the top of the frame. The dune is 267×110 m (876×361 ft). (HiRISE ESP_036393_2650, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The always-changing landscape

June 02, 2014

A piece of Mars: Over time, windblown sand can wear down a surface. This isn’t so common on Earth, where water, ice, and life are more likely to change the landscape, but it’s typical of many places on Mars. Here, we see one moment in time, where neverending sand (blowing from bottom right to top left) creates a pattern on the surface and scours a hole around a resistant rock. (ESP_035558_1830, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)


May 26, 2014

A piece of Mars: This is a bit of the flank of Arsia Mons, one of Mars’ great volcanoes. The big changes in topography are ancient relics of erosion by lava and great tectonic pulling. What I like is that the scene (1.58×1.18 km, or 0.98×0.74 mi) is covered in bright dust (looks a bit like snow here, doesn’t it?). And that dust has been eroded by wind channeled through the topography. So here we see signs of flow, both from ancient lava and from more recent wind. (HiRISE ESP_031944_1790, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Debunking Hoagland’s “Glass Worms” with HiRISE

May 19, 2014

A piece of Mars: Several years ago, a guy named Richard Hoagland claimed that some parallel linear features on Mars looked like the ridges of a transparent earthworm, calling these things “glass worms”. Phil Plait debunked it nicely, but Hoagland stood his ground. He hasn’t said much about them lately, has he? Here’s why. New images show that, as scientists originally thought, these are nothing more than windblown ripples in the floors of channels, just like the many thousands of ripples seen all over Mars. Go science! (HiRISE ESP_035634_2160, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

How we know wind blows down Olympus Mons’ flanks

May 12, 2014

A piece of Mars: It’s similar to my last post, but I love these wind tails. This is a tiny bit of the eastern slope of the gigantic volcano, Olympus Mons. The dusty surface has been covered by boulders (the largest of which is ~20 m, or 65 ft), probably flung there from a distant meteor impact on Mars. Winds screaming from the top of the volcano (from the left) have formed wind tails in the lee of these boulders. And there are some funky little ripples on them. (ESP_035663_1985, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The wind giveth and the wind taketh away

May 05, 2014

A piece of Mars: In the center of this image is a 270 m crater (885 ft) that was nearly buried, along with the surrounding terrain, by dust. Since then, wind from the upper left has scoured the dust deposit, forming streamlined horse-tail shapes. A few meter-scale boulders, possibly flung in from nearby impacts, show the most recent streamlined erosion. (ESP_035994_1805, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Big ripples near Opportunity

April 28, 2014

A piece of Mars: This shows the location of the rover Opportunity as of late March, 2014. It’s been trolling around the rim of Endeavour crater. Just inside the crater, there are some large ripples (the biggest is ~10 m wide) that have formed from erosional scours in dark sediments on the crater interior walls. The rover won’t ever go over there, but maybe it will climb to the other side of the rim and take some nice images of them. (HiRISE ESP_035909_1775, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Uniquely martian

April 21, 2014

A piece of Mars: Now here’s something that, as far as I know, can safely be labeled as “uniquely martian”. These dunes (or maybe they’re ripples) are ~25 m wide, and have formed from winds blowing from the upper left. Their upwind sides are smoothed by constant erosion from incident sand-laden winds, but their downwind sides are as bumpy as the surrounding surface. What makes this bumpy texture? (ESP_035305_1740, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)