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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 is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.