Okay, show of hands. Who thinks these dunes on Mars look like the Batman signal? What about the Starfleet logo, or something else? Please show your working.
For now, I’m officially declaring these features on the Red Planet the Batman Dunes of Mars. I’m unsure if NASA will formally name them so, but hey, just a suggestion.
These dunes – made of sand – are found near the North Pole of Mars. It’s not a particularly new image; NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped it on January 28, 2018. NASA has re-released the image in color, though, to give us a better view of this region of Mars.
In the image, the scale is 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) per pixel, while North is “up”. It was taken by the HiRISE camera ((High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) on the MRO.
We’ve seen other views of these dunes, such as this snap back in 2014. Previous images have looked a bit more similar to the Starfleet logo.
The shape of the dunes are the result of wind on Mars, which can reach up to 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) at times. They’re scientifically known as barchan dunes, and form when wind blows constantly in one direction, with the small amount of sand on offer causing the dunes to be isolated from each other.
We see evidence for similarly shaped dunes on Earth. Sometimes these have elongated arms caused by vegetation hanging on to the sand. Of course, that’s not the case on Mars, and we do also get these Mars-esque dunes too.
NASA highlighted another feature in the image at the top, though, namely what’s on the ground between the dunes. Here there are parallel dark and light stripes moving across the area, with the dark stripes containing piles of boulders at regular intervals.
“What organized these boulders into neatly-spaced piles?” NASA writes in a statement. “In the Arctic back on Earth, rocks can be organized by a process called ‘frost heave.’ With frost heave, repeatedly freezing and thawing of the ground can bring rocks to the surface and organize them into piles, stripes, or even circles.
“On Earth, one of these temperature cycles takes a year, but on Mars, it might be connected to changes in the planet's orbit around the Sun that take much longer.”