After being on the red planet for over four years, the Mars Curiosity Rover starts its journey of exploring Mars’s sand dunes located at the base of Mount Sharp, the focal point of the Martian expedition.
The Curiosity Rover has been on the planet since it landed in August 2012, funded by a 2.5 million dollar expedition with the purpose of finding if the red planet was capable of sustaining microbial life. During its exploration of Mars, the one ton rover found that the Gale crater housed a complex system of lakes and streams a long time ago, thus confirming the possibility of finding life on Mars, but in a microbial form (or at the very least, signs of its past existence).
The next exploration mission that the nuclear powered machine has to complete is a journey through the Bagnold Dunes, a formation of dark sand that moves around 3 feet per year, as seen by the satellites orbiting around Mars. The dunes are immense, the first one to be approached by the rover reaching the height of a two-story building and with the width of a football field.
This journey will prove a bit troublesome for Curiosity because of the dangers that sand traps present. Its predecessor on the red planet, the Spirit rover, was caught inside one of these traps in 2009 and has remained there until this day. Because of its solar powered battery and the location of the trap, engineers were unable to control the rover anymore and Spirit was unfortunately left there.
The exploration of the Bagnold Dunes is part of the rover’s mission to make inquiries about Mars’s geological history. This campaign started by exploring Mount Sharp, a formation residing inside the Gale crater. By slowly climbing up the mountain, the rover was capable of identifying the different layers of rock that came along with the passage of time, similar to how we make geological surveys here on Earth.
One of the mysteries that surround the sand dunes of Mars refers to the differences between them and the dunes on our planet, having much larger ripples on the top layer. By climbing over the dune, the rover will be able to explain if these ripples are caused by lower air pressure or if the sand found on the Bagnold Dunes is heavier than our sand, requiring winds with higher speeds in order for it to be displaced.
As of today the Mars Curiosity Rover starts its journey of exploring Mars’s sand dunes, standing about 600 feet away from the first dune.