HiRISE has been carrying out a dedicated survey of sand dunes on Mars, determining whether and how fast the dunes move by observing repeatedly at intervals of Martian years. More than 60 sites have been monitored so far, showing that sand dunes from the equator to the poles are advancing at rates of up to 1 meter per Martian year.
These observations are still spotty, however, and tend to be concentrated in the tropics and the North Polar erg (the sand sea that surrounds the North Pole). One latitude band that had not been sampled at all lies between 30 and 65 degrees north. This observation is among a set of images acquired to fill that gap.
This image shows a variety of different dune types in southern Lyot Crater in the northern lowlands at 48.9 degrees North. Transverse dunes to the west grade into longitudinal dunes downwind to the east and barchans to the south, possibly because of local winds channeled by topography in the impact basin. This image was intended to match the approximate illumination and viewing conditions of an earlier HiRISE observation that was made two Martian years earlier, in August 2008.
Detailed comparison of the two images shows movement on many of the dunes during this interval of nearly four Earth years. The subimage is an animation showing changes on one of the small barchans in the south of the dune field. The area pictured in the subimage is about 100 meters across. Winds from the west (left) have shifted the small ripples up the back of the dune towards the east. Sand has blown over the crest of the dune, cascaded down the steep slip face, and accumulated along the base of the slip face in the lee of the dune. In this way, the small dune advances slowly downwind.
Other images also show dune activity in this latitude band, adding to a growing suspicion that dunes are on the move everywhere on Mars, faster in some places than others.
Photo credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona