Mars may be a cold, dry, dead world, but it’s still part of nature. As part of nature, it exhibits a kind of uncanny beauty, as only inanimate forces shape its surface over long periods of time. It is like a laboratory formed by natural forces on a rocky planet, unperturbed by living processes.
A new video from NASA sheds light on the eerie allure of Matara Crater, a rather inconspicuous crater among the more than 43,000 craters on the surface of Mars, more than 5 km in diameter. The video is from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera. The still images that make up the video were taken from 251 km (156 miles) above the surface.
The Matara crater is only about 48 kilometers in diameter. But it’s fascinating for its dunes and undulating, textured nature. It is named after a city in Sri Lanka.
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This image shows Matara Crater in context, with the massive, low-lying impact crater Hellas Planitia on the right in blue. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU/USGS
“Matara Crater is one of our favorite images due to the huge and beautiful sand cover that dominates the floor. We often picture these dunes because of the canyons that form on them, in part due to carbon dioxide ice,” NASA writes in the caption accompanying the video.
The floor of Matara Crater is dominated by a massive layer of sand. Mars’ relentless winds shape the top of the Martian surface into dunes, and the HiRISE camera has cataloged these changing shapes over time. There are more than 100 images of the dunes on the HiRISE website.
The dunes in Matara Crater change with the seasons. Carbon dioxide freezes and melts, contributing to changes in the dunes. The HiRISE folks highlighted these changes in a separate video a few years ago.
NASA didn’t just build the HiRISE instrument for beautiful images of dunes and launched it into orbit around Mars with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Dunes can reveal a lot about the planet’s past. Different sizes of dust grains tell the scientists under which atmospheric conditions they were deposited. Dunes also contain information about the forces at work since they were deposited. Along with other scientific observations of Mars, they are helping to paint a picture of the planet’s history.
Some dunes even help us understand one of the biggest problems on Mars: what happened to its water. The Chinese rover Zhurong found evidence in sand dunes near the equator of Mars that liquid water flowed there only 400,000 years ago.
This image of Matara Crater shows the rolling elegance of its sand dunes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UArizona
Sand dunes are interesting targets for rover exploration, but they are difficult to navigate and dangerous for wheeled vehicles. NASA’s Spirit Rover got stuck in the sand in 2010 and its mission ended. Scientists are currently working on other locomotion methods for rovers to traverse sand dunes without wheels. Instead, these rovers would have bodies that roll across the sand. A design based on the Golden Wheel Spider from the Namib Desert. It is known for its wind-assisted rolling abilities, making it easier for it to traverse the dunes. It uses its rolling effect to avoid parasitic wasps.
FESTO has developed a prototype of a rolling robot based on the Cartwheeling Spider. In roll mode, the robot moves twice as fast on level ground. It’s called BionicWheelBot.
Here the BionicWheelBot is tested in the Sahara.
Rolling robots are never allowed to visit Matara Crater to explore its dunes. But at least we have the MRO and the HiRISE camera. Thanks to them and the quality of the 4K video, we can dream of visiting it ourselves.
This image shows the location of Matara Crater in the global context of Mars. Image source: USGS