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NASA's Curiosity Rover Finds Petrified Sand Dunes on Mars (Photo)

Petrified Sand Dunes on Mount Sharp
An August 2015 panorama from the Mars Curiosity rover, released in September, shows petrified sand dunes on Mount Sharp. (Image credit: Mars, curiosity, mount sharp, mars photos, mars surface, stimson, aeolis mons)

A sweeping new panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover shows petrified sand dunes stretching across the jagged terrain of Mount Sharp on Mars.

Curiosity's science team says the newly imaged dunes look similar to "crossbedding," structures formed by wind-deposited sand dunes such as those in the U.S. southwest. By looking at the sand dunes' geometry and orientation, scientists can get information about the winds that created the dunes.

"The Stimson unit overlies a layer of mudstone that was deposited in a lake environment," NASA officials said in a statement. "Curiosity has been examining successively higher and younger layers of Mount Sharp, starting with the mudstone at the mountain's base, for evidence about changes in the area's ancient environment." [See more amazing Mars photos by Curiosity]

The panorama is based on dozens of individual images taken by the rover's Mast Camera on Aug. 27. Since then, Curiosity has driven roughly 103 yards (94 meters) south of the site to look at more samples of the Stimson unit, according to NASA's statement.

The rover is now in its fourth year of operations since landing on Mars in August 2012. It spent the better part of three years heading to Mount Sharp, more officially called Aeolis Mons, before arriving there about a year ago.

Curiosity has made several major findings since arriving at Mars, from finding evidence of an ancient streambed, to detecting large swings of methane (an element that could be associated with life), to finding rocks formed in the presence of water.

One of the rover's goals is to characterize how habitable Mars is now, and how livable it was in the past. A successor rover, temporarily called Mars 2020, will leave for the Red Planet in five years.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.