Curiosity Rover on Mars Predicted to Encounter Moving Sand Dunes


Mountain View, CA -- The dunes in Gale Crater on Mars, near the landing site of the Curiosity rover, are moving. Until a few years ago, it was thought that the surface of Mars was largely inactive, with its landscapes no longer undergoing any significant modification. The identification of widespread active sand dune migration is one of several recent discoveries that has disproved this claim.

A recent paper by Simone Silvestro of the SETI Institute and colleagues demonstrates that sand dunes in Gale crater, located between the Curiosity rover and its final destination, Aeolis Mons (“Mount Sharp”), are among the actively migrating dunes on Mars. These dunes are moving towards the southwest at a rate of 0.4 meters per Earth year (an average of just over 1 mm per day). This indicates that the work of the wind is probably the most important process currently shaping the landscape in Gale crater. The images used in this study are from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), the camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Two main wind patterns have formed the dunes: winds from the northwest, and winds from the northeast. The northeasterly wind has most significantly changed the dunes and ripples in the last few years near a potential path of Curiosity. An atmospheric model, the Mars Regional Atmospheric Modeling System (MRAMS), produces wind predictions that support both of these findings.

The Curiosity rover must pass through this dune field on its traverse up the mountain, and it is likely that the rover will be able to see these dunes in action as it drives by them. These observations will be the first in situ study of dune migration on another world in the Solar System.


Silvestro, S., Vaz, D.A., Ewing, R.C., Rossi, A.P., Fenton, L.K., Michaels, T.I., Flahaut, J., Geissler, P.E. (2013) Pervasive aeolian activity along rover Curiosity’s traverse in Gale Crater, Mars. Geology, doi:10.1130/G34162.1. 


SETI Institute
The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach. Founded in November 1984, the SETI Institute began operations on February 1, 1985. Today it employs over 120 scientists, educators and support staff. Research at the Institute is anchored by three centers. Dr. Gerry Harp is Director of the Center for SETI Research (Dr. Jill Tarter continues as Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI.)  Dr. David Morrison is the Director for the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. Edna DeVore leads our Center for Education and Public Outreach.for Education and Public Outreach. SETI Institute website:

Lori Fenton is a researcher at the SETI Institute and contributor to the Cosmic Diary Blog (A piece of Mars)

Tim Michaels is a researcher at the SETI Institute.