With a fistful of sand, the Curiosity Rover is giving NASA a glimpse of Mars’ sand dunes. With 115 stitched photos, it’s giving everyone else a glimpse of what it would be like to stand in the middle of those rippled piles of Martian dirt. On Thursday, NASA released a 360-degree panorama of Curiosity’s examination of the Ogunquit Beach dunes, a study that spanned from February to early April.
NASA says the study is the first time sand dunes have been studied anywhere outside of our own water-filled planet. Curiosity’s exploration is helping NASA scientists study how the winds shape the dunes, which each have different patterns yet are bunched fairly close together. The group is also looking at whether or not that wind plays a role in where the planet’s minerals eventually wind up.
The linear shaped dunes in the 360 video, along with crescent-shaped dunes about one mile away, make up the planet’s Bagnold Dunes, which NASA says is several miles long on the northwestern side of Mount Sharp. Both dunes and the mountain were part of Curiosity’s recent research. “There was another key difference between the first and second phases of our dune campaign, besides the shape of the dunes,” California Institute of Technology’s Mathieu Lapotre said. “We were at the crescent dunes during the low-wind season of the Martian year and at the linear dunes during the high-wind season. We got to see a lot more movement of grains and ripples at the linear dunes.”
Besides just making up for a pretty cool 360 image, photos were also used to measure the movement of the sand over time since NASA says the rover’s Environmental Monitoring System is no longer sensing the wind after two of the six sensors on board became inoperable after landing in 2012.
The Rover is carrying around that dirt sample in one arm and has already gathered some data using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) inside. High winds and a potential drill feed issue are delaying the rest of the analysis, which requires the rover to pour the sand into ports for the instruments to analyze.
Curiosity is continuing to study the area around Mount Sharp, the same area that leads NASA to believe the planet was once home to several ancient lakes, including analyzing recurring slope lines for signs of H2O.