“The Martian” may have survived by growing potatoes on Mars and surprised everybody, but NASA’s Curiosity rover is set on a different kind of a mission altogether. This is not a movie. This is reality. The rover will soon be exploring the massive dark sand dunes on Mars to throw light on the significance of layers of sandstone on the planet. Some of the dunes are reported to be at least two-storeys high.

Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena, California said , “We've planned investigations that will not only tell us about modern dune activity on Mars but will also help us interpret the composition of sandstone layers made from dunes that turned into rock long ago.”

According to the last update on Monday, Curiosity was slowly inching closer to Dune 1, 200 metres away, by closely monitoring wind direction.

This moment is of prime importance as no other active dunes have been explored in the Solar System ever before, other than that of Earth. Probably that is all going to change in the next few days as the high-tech rover starts exploring the Bagnold Dunes skirting Mount Sharp.

Up to now, Curiosity has only explored sand drifts and ripples and not the large dunes. The dunes are said to be active and moving around one metre every year. This sparked the “curiosity” of NASA scientists, hence the operation.

"We will use Curiosity to learn whether the wind is actually sorting the minerals in the dunes by how the wind transports particles of different grain size," Ehlmann explained.

Sky News reports that movement for the rover has been extremely slow. It has travelled only 315 metres in the last three weeks. But once it reaches the dune, it will scoop up samples and process them with its laboratory instruments installed on-board. Curiosity will also scrape the surface of the dunes to compare it with that of the dune’s interiors.

The world needs an answer to the promising question – why did Mars’ wet environment change to the harsh conditions that prevail now? Curiosity is all set to find the answer.

Nathan Bridges, Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, has planned the dune campaign and is currently leading the team.

“These dunes have a different texture from dunes on Earth. The ripples on them are much larger than ripples on top of dunes on Earth, and we don't know why. But now we'll have the first opportunity to make detailed observations,” says Nathan.

In Aug. 2012, the one ton Curiosity touched down inside the Gale Crater on Mars to determine if the planet ever supported microbial life. The $2.5 billion mission bore fruit when the rover found out that Gale was once a haven to a lake and stream.

Source: YouTube/NASA

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