On its way to higher layers of the mountain where it’s investigating how Mars’ environment changed billions of years ago, curiosity of NASA Mars rover will take advantage of a chance to study some modern Martian activity at mobile sand dunes. In the next few days, the rover will get its first close up look at these dark dunes, called the ‘Bagnold Dunes’, which skirt the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp.
Curiosity has driven about 1,033 feet in the past three weeks, since departing an area where its drill sampled two rock targets just 18 days apart. The latest drilled sample, “Greenhorn,” is the ninth since Curiosity landed in 2012 and sixth since reaching Mount Sharp last year.
The mission is studying how Mars’ ancient environment changed from wet conditions favorable for microbial life to harsher, drier conditions. There is a new twist for the Windhoek Quadrant scientists at the Geological Society of Namibia and at the Gobabeb Research and Training Center in Namibia have supplied the rover team with a list of Namibian geological place names to use for characteristics in this quadrant.
The Windhoek theme was chosen for this sand dune bearing quadrant because studies of the Namib Desert have aided interpretation of dune and playa environments on Mars. The effect of wind on motion of individual particles in dunes has been studied extensively on Earth, a field pioneered by British military engineer Ralph Bagnold 1896-1990. Curiosity’s campaign at the Martian dune field informally named for him will be the first in place study of dune activity on a planet with lower gravity and less atmosphere.
The observations of the Bagnold Dunes with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicate that mineral composition is not evenly distributed in the dunes. The same orbiter’s High Res Imaging Science Experiment has documented movement of Bagnold Dunes.
JPL, managed by Caltech for NASA who built Curiosity and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.