Martian Sand Dunes Are Slowpokes

Martian Sand Dunes Are Slowpokes
This Mars Global Surveyor image shows a martian crater that has been encroached by a field of dark, wind-blown sand dunes in the Syrtis Major volcanic region of the red planet. (Image credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.)

The sand dunes of Mars are in no rush to move acrossthe red planet?s surface, new research shows.

It can take up to 1,000 years for dunes to movejust a few meters on Mars, largely due to the planet?s apparent lack of movingsurface water, weak winds and thin atmosphere, said the study?s author Eric Parteli.

?Mars dunes move much slower than Earth?sdunes,? said Parteli, a researcher at the University if Stuttgart in Germany, in an e-mail interview.

Parteli and colleague Hans Hermann, of Brazil's Federal University of Ceará, used computer simulations to reproduce actual Martian dunes observed by the Mars Orbiter Camera aboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. The images were taken before MarsGlobal Surveyor went silent last year, ending its 10-year studyof the red planet?s surface.

The scientists found that a small Martian sanddune about 3-feet (1-meter) tall would need wind speeds 75 mph (120 kph) tomove appreciably.

Since such winds are extremely rare on the redplanet, occurring just a few times each decade, the dunes of Mars are confined totheir glacial pace, the researchers said. The research is detailed in therecent edition of the journal Physical Review E.

The limiting factor, Parteli said, is theMartian atmosphere.

On Earth, sand dunes are shaped by water andwind. But extensive scans of Mars by NASA'sSpirit and Opportunity rovers and orbiting spacecraft have yet to findliquid water on the red planet's surface.

Dunes on Mars can reachheights of 20 feet (6 meters) and come in shapes ranging from crescents tostars, though similar sand dune formations are seen on Earth. The difference, Partelisaid, is that Mars tends to span more crescent-shaped (barchan) and transversedunes, while the long, sinewy linear dunes are more common on Earth.

And while Martian winds can kick up sky-blottingdust storms like those that plagued the Spirit and Opportunity rovers thissummer, the atmosphere of Mars is 100 times less dense than that of Earth. Theresult, researchers said, are weaker winds that only rarely reach strengthscapable of moving Martian dunes.

?If sand-moving winds on Mars occurred asfrequently as they occur on Earth, Mars dunes would move 10 times faster thanEarth?s dunes,? Parteli told

According to the simulations, winds strongenough to create bimodal dunes - sand structures shaped by winds blowing inperpendicular directions - could take about 50,000 years to complete theirwork.

"Of course, there are many winds on Marswhich change direction in a scale of hours," Parteli said. "Butthey're just not strong enough to move sand."

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.