Strange Mars dunes reveal where the wind blows on the Red Planet

A false-color image of a dune field inside Gamboa Crater on Mars.
A false-color image of a dune field inside Gamboa Crater on Mars. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

NASA's veteran Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured a stunning image of a Martian dune field that reveals intricate details that might help scientists learn more about weather patterns in the Red Planet's past. 

The image, which is in false color, captures an area inside Gamboa Crater, a large impact basin near Chryse Planitia north of Mars' equator. The blue coloring is a result of image processing designed to accentuate the dune field's complex features, including tiny ripples that line the tops of the larger dunes. 

The tiniest dunes captured in the image are spaced only several feet apart when measured from crest to crest, NASA officials wrote in a statement. These small ripples group into larger sand waves, about 30 feet (9 meters) apart, that radiate outward from the dunes. 

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The roughly parallel larger, brighter features in the image are the so-called "Transverse Aeolian Ridges," or TAR, which are covered with very coarse sand, according to the statement.

"The mega-ripples appear blue-green on one side of an enhanced color cutout while the TAR appear brighter blue on the other," NASA officials wrote. "This could be because the TAR are actively moving under the force of the wind, clearing away darker dust and making them brighter."

By studying images like this one, scientists can learn about the direction of the wind that created those dunes in the distant past. The diversity of features reveals the relationships and differences between them. The images could help scientists infer the properties of the material these structures are made of, telling the story of their formation.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which took the image earlier this year, has been monitoring Mars more than 16 years. The probe, which was designed to search for evidence of past water on the now-arid Martian surface, proved that the planet may once have been habitable. The orbiter also serves as a data relay for NASA's Martian rovers Curiosity and Perseverance, and helps mission teams select landing sites for new missions.

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science,, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.