Wandering the Dunes of Mars

You may or may not live to see an astronaut walk the surface of Mars. But you can explore the Red Planet yourself, for real, today.

Dunes in Kaiser Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA

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Twenty-five hours a day*, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spies on the Martians. If there are any. The robotic space probe has been in orbit around the Red Planet for more than five Earth years now, armed with a powerful camera. It has sent back terabytes of pictures showing the canyons, ice sheets, dry river beds and dune fields of Mars–at a level of detail that space explorers have always dreamt of. Some of the images are so sharp that if you drove your SUV across a Martian plain into its field of vision, this camera would catch you.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has discovered some amazing things along the way, most notably that liquid water seems to be flowing underground on Mars today. Which means that the idea of Martians of some kind, maybe now or maybe in the past, is not so crazy after all.

Mars is smaller than the Earth, but since it has no oceans it has about the same surface area. So there’s a lot of territory to cover. MRO hasn’t mapped all of it, but the probe has collected deep stacks of images from all over the planet.

One of the best parts of this story is that anyone with an Internet connection can dig through the pictures any time they want. It’s pretty easy now that there’s HiView, free software that helps you explore giant image files without having to download everything all at once.

Let’s try it out. Here’s one example of what you can find when you ride along with MRO.

*A day on Mars lasts about 24 hours and 39 minutes.

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[box style=”camera”]See many more pictures of Mars from MRO on Riding with Robots.
Mars: Long-Distance Weather Report Mars ice cap[/box]

[box style=”download”]Download the HiView software, get the instructions and go exploring.[/box]

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We’re going to zoom in on a place called Kaiser Crater. For context, here’s a Google Mars map showing where Kaiser sits among the rugged southern highlands:

Kaiser Crater in context
Kaiser Crater in context. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/Google

Just a few months ago, MRO snapped this striking view of a dune field inside Kaiser Crater:

Dunes
A field of Martian dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA

Now, using HiView, let’s take a look around:

Close-up on a crater within the crater
Close-up on a crater within the crater. This area is only about 500 meters wide. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA
Dunes within the dunes
Dunes within the dunes within the dunes.
Half buried by the encroaching sands
Half-buried by the shifting sands. Or is it half-revealed? Credit: NASA/JPL/UA
kaisergreendunes
That strange, haunting beauty that is everywhere on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA

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