Flipping through Curiosity’s Album
Every once in a while I go wandering through the raw images from the Mars Curiosity Rover. And, every time I find jaw-droppingly beautiful views. Like this one.
Wow!!! It’s a sea of dunes stretching out toward a rock outcrop in the distance, and even farther away, a distant set of hills.
The wind blows a lot at Mars. Wind-driven erosion is an aeolian process (aeolian coming from the Greek God Aeolis, keeper of the winds). It sculpts the surface, just as winds affect and create landforms on Earth. These dunes could just as easily BE on Earth, they look that familiar!
The scene poses a lot of questions: what are the factors that lend themselves to forming these lovely dunes? What are those rocks in the foreground? Have the dunes “walked over” them as the winds blew? What’s the white flat area right head of the rover?
I wonder if the rover will try to drive across this sea of dunes? Could be risky. Is there another route to be taken?
After I stared for a while at this lovely sea of interlocking dunes, I found another image taken the same day that shows a view in a slightly different direction.
The pebbly surface is interrupted by rock outcrops, more small dunes, and at the bottom, what must be edge of the dune field from the other image. To someone who lives in a fairly arid environment (as I do) or who has visited the desert Southwest of the U.S. (as I have), this looks so achingly familiar. It’s like I could just hop out of the Jeep and go striding across the surface to pick up some rocks. Except, this geology field trip is tens of millions of kilometers away, on a planet that looks a lot like Earth.
Images like these two (and many others taken by the rovers and landers on Mars) are a triumph of planetary exploration. They give us a “first hand” sense of what it’s like to be there. Of course, Mars’s atmosphere is thin and made of carbon dioxide, so if I WERE there, I’d be wearing a space suit, carrying oxygen, and shading myself from the higher ultraviolet radiation exposure.
You know, that’s exactly what future Mars explorers will face: these dry and dusty desert landscapes, bright sunlight, UV radiation, windy weather, and cold temperatures. The rovers, in sending back images like these, are really preparing us mentally for what our explorers will find. It won’t be just those folks who make the trip who go to Mars. The rest of us will go along too, in spirit, in imagination, in awe and wonder. And, as I flip through Curiosity’s picture album tonight, I’m along for the ride. You can do it, too. Mars is a mouse click away!