Martian Winds Carved Giant Mountain in Red Planet's Gale Crater

Mars partial panorama
The left side of this 360-degree panorama from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the long rows of ripples on a linear-shaped dune in the Bagnold Dune Field on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Martian winds shaped the mountain that stands tall in the middle of the Red Planet's vast Gale Crater, new observations from NASA's Curiosity rover suggest.

While the atmosphere of Mars is roughly 100 times thinner than Earth's, it is still thick enough to support weather, clouds and swirling winds. These appear to be the dominant force shaping the Red Planet's landscape, NASA officials said in a statement.

Using observations from Curiosity and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists found that Martian winds have slowly been carrying dust and sediment out of Gale Crater for billions of years, leaving behind the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) layered mountain known as Mount Sharp. [Watch: Dust Devils on Mars Blow by Curiosity Rover]

The left side of this 360-degree panorama from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the long rows of ripples on a linear-shaped dune in the Bagnold Dune Field on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Gale Crater measures 96 miles (154 km) wide and was blasted out by an asteroid or a comet that hit the Red Planet more than 3.6 billion years ago. Ancient rivers later deposited sediments including rocks, sand and silt into the basin, filling it to the brim. Then, when the planet's climate became drier, wind eroded the deposited sediments, NASA officials said. 

This map shows the two locations of a research campaign by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission to investigate active sand dunes on Mars. In late 2015, Curiosity reached crescent-shaped dunes, called barchans. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

"Scientists first proposed in 2000 that the mound at the center of Gale Crater is a remnant from wind eroding what had been a totally filled basin," NASA officials said in the statement. "The new work calculates that the vast volume of material removed — about 15,000 cubic miles (64,000 cubic km) — is consistent with orbital observations of winds' effects in and around the crater, when multiplied by a billion or more years."

Curiosity investigated crescent-shaped dunes in late 2015 and early 2016. However, the rover's latest work is focused on a group of ribbon-shaped linear dunes, as the Red Planet enters its summer season — the windiest time of year.

"In these linear dunes, the sand is transported along the ribbon pathway, while the ribbon can oscillate back and forth, side to side," Nathan Bridges, a Curiosity science team member at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said in the same statement.  

While on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, Curiosity will continue to study the movement and composition of sand particles at the linear dunes. Recent rover images captured small ripples of sand moving about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) downwind, as well as whirlwinds called dust devils moving across the crater's terrain, NASA officials said. 

"We're keeping Curiosity busy in an area with lots of sand at a season when there's plenty of wind blowing it around," Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in the statement. "One aspect we want to learn more about is the wind's effect on sorting sand grains with different composition. That helps us interpret modern dunes as well as ancient sandstones."

Take a look at these amazing images of dust devils and other activity on Mars:

This sequence of images shows a dust devil scooting across ground inside Gale Crater, as observed by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on the local summer afternoon of Feb. 1, 2017. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU)

This pair of images shows the effects of one Martian day of wind blowing sand underneath NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on a nondriving day for the rover. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Beyond a dark sand dune closer to the rover, a Martian dust devil passes in front of the horizon in this sequence of images from NASA's Curiosity Mars rover. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU)

Dust devils dance in the distance in this sequence of images taken by the Navigation Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on Feb. 12, 2017. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU)

This sequence of images shows a dust devil on lower Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, as viewed by NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover during the summer afternoon of Feb. 18, 2017. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/TAMU)

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.