Dune Mars

By Phil Plait | April 13, 2009 7:00 am

Imagine you’re floating high above Mars, soaring across the butterscotch-tinted landscape. Up ahead, you spot something odd, a series of lines and weird shapes, just downwind from a dotting of high mesas. What do you think that would look like?

I bet it would appear to be something like this:

[Click to see it embiggened, or click here to see it really cromulently embiggened]

That picture is from just about my favorite camera in the whole solar system: HiRISE, on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. With a resolution of a half-meter per pixel it has been taking breathtaking images of the Red Planet. This particular picture shows a region in the southern mid-latitudes of Mars, just west of the Hellas Basin, a vast impact depression 2700 km across.

On the left are two large mesas, flat-topped hills. As the wind whips around them, it blows sand into those long, linear dunes called seifs. The seifs themselves can break up and form the horseshoe-shaped dunes called barchans. I imagine that given time, and a hefty budget, this is what Salvador Dali’s beachhouse property would look like.

Here’s a closeup of the right center of the image:

The lighter object is another mesa, though the top is not quite flat. You can tell from the shape of the hill the wind is blowing from left to right and has been for a long, long time. The barchans look smooth, but they don’t need to be; the wind can carve ripples into them as well:

[Again, click to enlarge and see the gorgeous detail.] Think of them as dunes on dunes.

Funny. On TV shows and in movies, there’s a tendency to make planets all one environment (the ice planet Hoth, or Vulcan and Arrakis as desert worlds). But when we look at the planets in just our own solar system — all born from the same parent disk of gas and dust 4.6 billion years ago — we see diversity on a magnificent scale. Features rare on Earth (like seifs) are common on Mars, and Mars itself, though apparently fairly dead and lacking any extant water, has an incredible landscape of astonishing beauty and complexity.

What will it look like when we go there, stand on the crest of a seif, and look out over to the Martian horizon? What wonders will those humans be able to see?

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (95)

  1. Anyone see the Virgin Mary in that mesa in the second image?

    Hmmmm… on second look, it looks more like the Virgin Rorschach. Still… creepy.

  2. Todd W.

    I see lines of large carapaced insects heading to their ships to invade Earth.

  3. “What wonders will those humans be able to see?”

    Considering we’re talking about humans, I’m guessing those wondrous landscapes will be covered with litter before too long’

  4. To totally geek out there for a minute, there was an episode of Stargate that made fun of exactly this habit of characterizing a world based on a single climate attribute.

    Dr. Carter climbs up out of a cave to find herself on a glacier and insists that she’s on an entire planet of ice when she’s really, though she doesn’t know it, been transported to the Earth’s own south pole.

    It’s more funny to me that, in much of science fiction, entire planets are cultural homogeneous, entire species that might number in the billions are characterized as being of uniform social imagination despite the fact that any such world would surely be as varied as Earth in this regard.

  5. There’s a sad face in the dirt below the second mesa you mention. I see it in the larger image hosted on flickr.

  6. And just to clarify. I don’t actually think it is a face or someone put it there, I just noticed it looks like a simple emoticon sad face. : (

  7. Charles

    That’s clearly the Martian invasion fleet preparing to launch!

  8. Kris

    That reminds me of when Star Wars Revenge of the Sith came out, and people were complaining that it couldn’t be the Wookie homeworld in those shots, because there was water, and everyone knows it’s supposed to be covered in one giant forest. (According to a game, where you only touch down in one small city)

    Nevermind that the giant trees were still there, along with the same architecture. Clearly, since we didn’t see an ocean in the game, there can’t be one on the planet!

    Don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with Tatooine.

  9. Sandworm tracks, run for the rocks! Random steps!

  10. Brian Schlosser, Lurker

    @ Kris: I’ll get started on it! At least Vulcan has geography… Tattoine is just desert. I hate that butt-ugly planet! Why is anyone even THERE? Why farm moisture when you can live on any of the 10’s of thousands of other non-desert planets??

    Anyway, rant over…

    Back to Mars… These images are amazing. It boggles to mind to realize that Mars is a WORLD, with a surface area the same as Earth’s land area… And Mars is just the START… its a hell of an amazing universe!

  11. @ Kris: I’ll get started on it! At least Vulcan has geography… Tattoine is just desert. I hate that butt-ugly planet! Why is anyone even THERE? Why farm moisture when you can live on any of the 10’s of thousands of other non-desert planets??

    That’s the best part of the sort of human-diaspora science fiction: people travel across the galaxy to live on these stupid ugly planets. How bad did Earth get?

    Well, I guess Star Wars doesn’t techinically have any humans, but still.

  12. Bill Roberts

    Anybody else notice that the dunes look kind of like the insignia for the Starship Enterprise?

  13. Cheyenne

    “What will it look like when we go there, stand on the crest of a seif, and look out over to the Martian horizon? What wonders will those humans be able to see?”

    I guessing they’ll be able to see images like the ones you have just shown from HiRISE….

    They will see exactly the same kinds of things that all the other probes and rovers are already providing us and will continue to do. Images that all of us can see at our desktops (like how we are seeing the gorgeous images above).

    Or maybe an astronaut in a spacesuit has special vision powers that I don’t know about?

  14. @ Lurker:

    “Why is anyone even THERE? Why farm moisture when you can live on any of the 10’s of thousands of other non-desert planets??”

    I dunno, why do humans live in Yemen? Or Qatar? Or Namibia? Or Mongolia?

    People (or peoploids, as the case may be) are pretty good at adapting to incredibly harsh conditions…for what? To live in a yurt? Or a hole in the ground? To each his own.

  15. Mark

    Clearly it’s a series of Pac-Man heads carved there millenea ago by a race of alien Pac-Men. Somebody call Rick Hoagland!!

  16. jsclary

    Oooh, tentacles! Or is it noodly appendages? Nah, definitely tentacles.

  17. The first image reminds me of rain running down a car windshield.

  18. Trebuchet

    The Universe Today rocket is just slightly below and right of center in the first picture. Fraser Cain has beaten you to Mars, BA.

    And those are some seriously beautiful pictures. The universe is an amazing place, and we haven’t even scratched the surface.

  19. @Lurker @kuhnigget

    “Why is anyone even THERE? Why farm moisture when you can live on any of the 10’s of thousands of other non-desert planets??”

    “I dunno, why do humans live in Yemen? Or Qatar? Or Namibia? Or Mongolia?”

    Exactly, I think it borderline arogant to believe that the somewhat comfortable life made (relatively) easier by technological advencements easily accesible in the US is the one everyone longs for. Setting aside the fact that not everybody in this world was “lucky” enough to be born in a developed nation (in fact, the majority wasn’t) have you ever consider that people actually like their ways of life, their traditions, history, culture which are inextricably connected to the environment in which they live.

  20. CHeyenne, yes, humans do have “special vision powers” over HiRISE. Color, for one. Details smaller than 50 cm fr another. Wider range of landscape, looking at different angles, being able to pick up things and examine them… And the rovers have examined a tiny fraction of a percent of the planet.

  21. DredPirateAngE

    wow that’s cool. they look like they’re dripping… like blobs of meting ice dripping to the right and leaving tracks as they go.

  22. burgerpocket

    What is it with images of Mars that practically begs people to invite pareidolia into their thought processes?

  23. Brian Schlosser

    You know what? I’m taking my “lurker” off… Anyway, @3v1l5w1n and @kuhnigget:

    Of course its arrogant to believe that everyone really wants to live in the western civilization. People are connected to their histories and ways of life. Of course they are.

    But we’re not talking about real people here, we’re talking about STAR WARS… In the SW universe, all the humans are on Tattoine voluntarily (or brought there as slaves)… Which begs the question of “why?” All that the humans there do is farm moisture out of the air (or work in the junk stores as slaves). Why? There are plenty of other places in the Galaxy to live in.

    Yes, in the real world, Yemenis and Mongolians and other peoples stay where they are for many reasons. But very few people from, say, New York move to Tunisia to eke out a living sucking water out of the sky.

    I’m not criticising real people and cultures, I’m criticscing crummy story telling… And keep in mind, I LOVE Star Wars. Its just full of goofiness.

  24. madge

    Stunning images. New desktop. HiRise ROCKS. Thank you Phil :)

  25. TheBlackCat

    No, no, no! They are the fossils of giant horseshoe crabs! Somebody call Hoagland!!!

  26. Pieter Kok

    Favourite camera in the solar system indeed! I wonder how long it takes for these pics to show up on Google Mars.

    Technical question: Phil, do you know what’s the time scale for these features to change? Hours, days, months?

  27. TheBlackCat

    The one down and to the left (225 degrees) of the round mesa looks like a classic sci-fi rocket ship.

  28. Cheyenne

    BA- You know more about this (obviously) than I do but- probes can’t see in color? Don’t they place color boards on top of the rovers so they can calibrate their instruments to make sure the photos have the right color? Speaking of color – couldn’t they also see in Infrared and UV and other bands that humans can’t see (we’re rather limited in our slice of the spectrum aren’t we?).

    They can’t see smaller detail than a probe? Again, I humbly don’t understand this. A human can see smaller detail than a microscope attached to a probe? We have some remarkably detailed photos from Spirit and Opportunity. They show detail in much better resolution than a human could looking at it with his plain eyeball through a visor.

    Probes can pick up things and examine them. That’s why they have arms and instruments like TEGA. They can figure out the mass of an object (for example) with much greater precision than a human could hefting a rock with a gloved hand. Probes can’t look at different angles? I don’t really know how to respond to that one….

    They can also work without food, air, and an extraordinary amount of radiation shielding. Probes are advancing in capability faster than Moore’s law. Human’s ain’t. We need human brain power – not human bodies. Spirit and Opportunity let 50 geologists examine the data back here and can interact with the probes remotely.

    Next generation probes, that can work around the clock, are going to be capable of examining far more territory than any astronaut ever could.

    Lastly – putting an astronaut on Mars doesn’t make any sense because they will contaminate the planet. A planet that had water in the past could have had life (as best we understand it now). We need to make sure that what we find wasn’t delivered there by us.

    By the way – where else does anybody think we’re going to launch a human to in space aside from Mars and the moon? Jupiter? Venus? Saturn?

    Here’s my vote – ok maybe humans in space someday far in the future will make sense (but I highly doubt it) – in the meantime let’s please try to influence NASA to stop wasting all of this money (billions and billions and billions of dollars) on these dumb missions and go gonzo for real science and exploration. Putting people into space doesn’t have a chance of solving the big questions in science right now – and scientists know that.

  29. Todd W.


    Lastly – putting an astronaut on Mars doesn’t make any sense because they will contaminate the planet. A planet that had water in the past could have had life (as best we understand it now). We need to make sure that what we find wasn’t delivered there by us.

    I would imagine that any capsule these days would have a decontamination chamber for entering and exiting to prevent not only contamination of the planet/moon being investigated, but also to prevent contamination of the capsule and astronauts. Past that, wouldn’t the probes and capsules both have contaminants on them that pre-launch decontamination missed?

  30. Brian Schlosser


    An astronaut on the scene has something the probes never will: intuition. The probes can only do what the ground controllers tell them. The scientists have to consider what rocks to examine, where to go, what to do. It takes time to plan, and then what, 8 minutes for the instructions to get there? A geologist on the scene can make descisions much faster, and implement them right then. S/he can turn over all the rocks they want, poke around all sorts of other places than the probes can go, decide right then and there to pursue a new lead. Having a human prescence on Mars will speed up research immensely.

    And, also, I have to admit, the philosophical reasons are compelling to me, though I appreciate that they are not to everyone. “Because its there” has been the Human motto for a long time, and has led to a great many discoveries.

  31. theinquisitor

    What’s funny is that if those were computer generated images, they’d be rejected because they don’t look real enough. Those edges are so smooth. There was a clip from Battlestar where the producers wanted a shot redone because it looked too-CG, but it was done with physical effects.

    I’m racking my brain trying to think of ONE planet in science fiction that has a variety of climate. Is there even ONE? I never really thought about it, but it’s so obvious. How could a planet be all the same? Hmm, is Jupiter homogenous?

  32. erissian

    It looks like caramel drizzled over a cake. (I think it’s time to take lunch…)

  33. Sundance

    These pictures are exactly what makes observational science so cool. The Universe just keeps surprising us with these nuggets of reality that are both beautiful to look at and intellectually fascinating. How lucky our generation is to be able to see the Universe revealed before us like this.

    @Cheyenne; Have you ever been on a holiday? I would rather stand at the foot of the Pyramids (I have) than stare at a photograph of them, even though it would be cheaper to stay at home. It might not make fiscal sense to send humans into space, according to a certain financial metric. But we would not be human if we didn’t explore. Having grown up in Australia, I am glad that the human tendency to spread out and explore has created a multitude of communities in which old social orders can be abandoned and new social experiments attempted. Anyone who lives in a multicultual, democratic society largely has the human tendency for migration and exploration to thank for that. We should expect that the colonisation of other planets/moons/artificial habitats will have similar effects, in terms of social evolution. While scientific research is downright vital, the benefits to our species of non-robotic exploration and colonisation can’t and shouldn’t be measured just in dollars, and bits of observational data.

  34. Todd W.


    How could a planet be all the same?

    I suppose it depends on the size of the planet, distance from its sun, makeup of its atmosphere, tilt, rotation, orbit, etc. Isn’t Enceladus an ice world? Okay, it’s not a planet, but it is an example of a world that is entirely icy.

  35. Cheyenne


    How do you decontaminate an astronaut’s body? There is an extraordinary amount of bacteria, virus particles, etc. that reside inside them. There is no way you could guarantee that they would always be able to 100% decontaminate themselves (the outsides of their suits) before venturing outside the Biodome shelter thingy. Or if they cut their suits when they are shuffling around and banging on rocks with field hammers. Or whatever other countless mistakes that could and will be made on a year long sit on the planet.

    I think most scientists would say that you can’t guarantee that a probe is 100% sterile. But it’s a far, far safer bet that it is over a human.

    To me the most compelling reason to investigate Mars is not for it’s geology (which is still crazy cool) – but for it’s possible biology. Astronauts endanger that initial investigation by simply being there.

  36. These pictures are clear evidence that PZ has gotten to Mars before you did. =)

  37. theinquisitor

    @Todd W, good point. A small planet that is far enough outside of terrestial conditions would appear to be mostly the same from our perspective, even if there were some variations at the poles and equator. However, surely the same can’t be said of Earth-like planets.

  38. Quiet Desperation

    I see paint splatters on a wall. Seriously, Phil, you’re having us on, right? This is an extreme closeup of the side of your house.

  39. Todd W.


    There is no way you could guarantee that they would always be able to 100% decontaminate themselves (the outsides of their suits) before venturing outside the Biodome shelter thingy. Or if they cut their suits when they are shuffling around and banging on rocks with field hammers. Or whatever other countless mistakes that could and will be made on a year long sit on the planet.

    The outside of the suit could very likely be decontaminated as much as, or possibly better than, a probe, since you don’t have a contaminated atmosphere to pass through. To prevent cutting their suits, use improved materials that are more resistant to cuts, tears or shattering (for visors). If you base it only on “what ifs”, of course it sounds risky, but you need to put them into perspective.

    The same game could be played with probes. Suppose they decontaminate the probe, but some bug (insect, bacteria, virus) slips into the casing just before it is sealed. True, there are probably going to be fewer bacteria/viruses on the probe itself that could be leaked out by damage to the probe (though there’s the possibility of toxic materials leaking out – oils, greases, fuels, certain metals, etc.), but accidents happen, and a probe can be just as likely to damage biological studies as a person.

    And talking about a year-long sit on the planet is jumping the gun a bit, dontcha think? Any manned mission would probably be only a few days at most for the first bunch of missions. Year-long stints would be quite a ways off.

  40. paul


    Human explorers have one infinite advantage over probes- on the spot intuition and reaction. Any robotic explorer will always be constrained by their rigid programing and a minimal 20 minute lag between itself and controllers.

  41. Randy A.

    My vote is that we need humans on Mars. I volunteer!!!

    Probes can have color vision, and can see colors that humans can’t. But human eyes can see things a camera can’t. I spent the last week in Death Valley, and my camera couldn’t “see” details in shadows and desert sunlight at the same time — my eyes could. And cameras can’t pick up things like the luster of a mineral (luster is the quality of reflected light, as in the difference between shiny plastic and shiny metal).

    Probes can pick up things, but they don’t have a sense of touch. If I was on one of those dunes, the first thing I would do was pick up a handful of sand (or dust, as the case may be). I could quickly determine the approximate grain size, rounding and sorting (by tossing the material in the air, if pressure suit gloves limited tactile sensations).

    Humans can’t work 24/7, but human geologists are much more efficient — they’ve been trained to complete their field work quickly. And humans sometimes have “common sense”. Robots never do — they are constrained by their programing. (So far we haven’t built a computer that can pass the Turing test — but then I’ve encountered humans who couldn’t either!)

    At this time, robots are cheaper, because they can be sent one way, without life support. But in the future, we will hopefully be able to get humans into space more easily. But that future won’t arrive unless we strive for it.

  42. Cheyenne

    @Todd – I think we’ll have to respectfully agree to disagree on the issue of contamination.

    But on the “year long stint bit”- it’s not jumping the gun. Virtually all of the proposed missions to Mars call for one year to travel there, one year to stay there, and one year back. You have to very carefully work with the parameters of the orbits between the two planets. Launch windows dictate that whoever goes there is going to be there for a year before they can even try to launch back home (Earth orbits the sun faster than Mars. Astronauts have to wait for it to cycle around again before launching back – they couldn’t do just a few days even if they wanted to).

    So we’ll need to put into orbit 3 years worth of food, water, oxygen, and radiation shielding for every astronaut sent there (and a whole gaggle load more of kit). We can’t do this in our lifetimes and we shouldn’t do it even in our grandkids lifetimes. It’s a pipe dream. And a bad one. We can barely get the Mars science lab funded and launched (it’s delayed and north of $2.3 billion right now – and that’s just one probe on a one way mission).

  43. Todd W.


    Fair enough on the contamination bit. As to length of stay, I hadn’t considered orbit parameters and launch windows. Do you have a link to anything that specifies the minimum length of stay and/or selection of windows?

  44. IVAN3MAN


    I’m racking my brain trying to think of ONE planet in science fiction that has a variety of climate. Is there even ONE?

    Yes, the planet Mongo of the Flash Gordon scf-fi stories:

    Map of the Planet MONGO
    Map of the Planet MONGO
    (Click on the image to “embiggen”.)

  45. Tobin Dax

    Clearly this picture is a promotion for the Star Trek movie coming out next month.

  46. Brian Schlosser

    I know of one SF planet that has multiple environments: The Genesis Planet!

    Of course, it kinda has different envioronments on top of each other at the same time…

    Despite my gripe about Tattoine, Star Wars does have some good, varied planets. Alderaan (RIP), Naboo… The ice planets I don’t have much of a problem with. As noted above, Enceledeus is an ice moon… Of course, for a whole PLANET to be solid ice AND have a breathable atmosphere, complete with weather… thats a bit of a stretch.

  47. @ He Who No Longer Lurks:

    Yeah, but we don’t know what Tatooine was like before the movie starts. For all we know, it used to be a lovely green planet with chirping birds and running water and all that goodness. Only after massive exploitation by those darn Republicans did the climate change, thus forcing the poor dehydrated inhabitants to start water farming. Now if the Empire had had the time to send their crack hydrological engineers and climatologists, things could have been set right. But noooooooo….

    That, or Lucas just ripped off Frank Herbert and forgot about the spice.

  48. Cheyenne

    @Todd –

    Maybe some that are less biased than me would be –




    The first one has an interesting footnote pointing out that Griffin proposed shifting $11 billion from space science exploration missions to pay for a manned Mars mission.

    But if you are looking for more specifics sorry I don’t have them at this point. I’m working off of memory from articles from Popular Mechanics, the Mars Society, etc.

    @Paul – I don’t think we really need quick reaction times on Mars. Aside from that – what do you think is better – having a 20 minute lag today and tomorrow or having no lag whatsoever (since we’re no where near sending humans there)? I’d like the 20 min lag please.

  49. @ inquisitor:

    I’m racking my brain trying to think of ONE planet in science fiction that has a variety of climate. Is there even ONE?

    Hal Clement’s Mesklin, in Mission of Gravity has some pretty seriously worked out climatology, all based on the unusual size and shape of the world.

  50. Todd W.


    The Pern books also have a planet with varied climates. McCaffrey did some good research, it would seem.

  51. Pieter Kok

    Earth was once completely covered with ice, so it’s not that unrealistic. Even the homogeneous culture doesn’t bother me too much, since typically the intrepid explorers deal only with the people that are local to the landing site. Having said that, broadening this perspective could lead to some interesting plot lines.

  52. Joe Meils

    Sadly, what I think humans will see are some of the most boring landscapes the planet has to offer: NASA has no sense of adventure, and will put us down on the safest plain they can find. No Olympus Mons, no Valley of the Mariner, not even the dumb ol’ “face on Mars”… No, NASA is busy seeking something that will be about as dull and unexciting as a bowl of plain oatmeal.

    It’s the NASA way!

  53. Sarcastro

    To be fair to Frank Herbert, there was a reason Arrakis was all desert; immature sand worms encysted all the free water. By the time you get to God Emperor of Dune the cycle has been broken and Arrakis has returned to its original state (the worms were introduced to the planet at some point, they were not native) with varied ecosystems.

  54. Brian Schlosser


    “That, or Lucas just ripped off Frank Herbert and forgot about the spice.”

    THAT is the root of my argument, laid out pretty well! :-)

    Other planets: I like the array of planets in Niven’s Known Space… Planets that have parts sticking out of the atmosphere, planets where the whole atmosphere is in one canyon…

  55. John MightyMo

    Wow, that is truly amazing. Awesome images dude!


  56. Sarcastro

    Arrukus. Doon. Dessert planet. Not an entrée to be found on the entire surface.

  57. Xzibit

    Sup dawg. We heard you like dunes so we put dunes on your dunes so you could barchan your seifs while you explore mars.

  58. Amos Newcombe

    “Radole … was a ribbon world … where the two halves face monotonous extremes of heat and cold, while the region of possible life is the girdling ribbon of the twilight zone.”

    Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov

  59. Witherbucket

    Yes! I was thinking of that exact planet from the Foundation series. I was trying to think back to all the planets seen in that series, but that was the only one I could remember in great detail that wasn’t dead or artificial.

  60. james kirk

    Tattoine was a “pirate” planet outside the federation/empire and run by the Hutts (gangsters), the reason people where living there was because they didn`t want to be arrested living somewhere else (you will never find a more wretched hive of crime and villany) , other people lived there hopeing to get rich, the moisture farmers made life there possible for everyone (and probably made a reasonable living off the “townies”

    as for the wonderful robotic probes exploring Mars, its been what? four decades? and we still don`t know for sure if theres even water there, something any junior school chemist could solve in a couple of minutes, don`t tell me robots are useful, they return data, it just aint the data we actualy WANT, not one probe has conclusively solved big problems, even when they where designed to do so, lif?….er!…dunnno, water…er!….dunno/maybe (and at that they even “supposedly/they think” landed right on top of it

    Gimme a break, you want answers that people want?, send people, robot toys are cool and all that, but they are just too simple to do anything other than general science, you need people, the only system thats self repairing, independent, self programming, adaptable, can be built by unskilled labour, and actualy can do something useful when it gets there.

    remember…four decades, and we still don`t have answers to the most important questions (water/life) that a human could answer within a few minutes of arriving, one manned mission could do more in a week than forty years worth of robotic probes, what a waste.

  61. SharonC

    A number of the worlds described by Alan Dean Foster in his Commonwealth series have varied geography. As books are written expanding the stories, you hear about other areas on planets that in the beginning seemed to have only one climate. For example, the planet Moth starts only mentioning the damp, cool forested area in which the story starts. Later stories mention an area with huge lakes, and a desert.

  62. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Ooh, images so sharp that they cut my eyes. And then I get sand in them too…

    This thread is a study in contrasts as well, with persons (rightly) complaining about lack of diversity, others (rightly) complaining about unlikely diversity, and so on.

    [FWIW, I assumed Tatooine was merely used as a Hutt smuggler base; and the desire to get away from there was expressed by several unlucky inhabitants.]

    an astronaut on Mars doesn’t make any sense because they will contaminate the planet.

    So will the probes. They aren’t (can’t) be sterilized as a practical matter AFAIU, so they clean them up according to some probably politically (rather, economically) decided compromise protocol:

    NASA planetary protection policy within the COSPAR
    international agreements tolerates no more than 300 bacterial spores
    per square meter on exposed surfaces of any extraterrestrial directcontact
    lander, rover, or probe.
    Requirements for sample return missions
    or in situ identification of possible bio/organic traces on foreign
    planets are significantly stricter. Despite rigorous presterilization
    and all precautions, terrestrial microorganisms might remain in the
    interiors of spacecraft components, porous materials, cracks, and
    cervices [sic]. [MSL 2003 Parachute performance specifications; my bold.]”

    Take Mars probes for example. The main exposed surface will be the chutes. The MSL chute seems to be circular with a nominal diameter of ~ 33 +/- 1 m, which is ~ 1700 m2 m exposed surface on both sides. So there you will launch up to 0.5 million spores, if the procedure is successful, not counting the likely hundreds or more millions inside the lander and rover systems. They are rather more protected travelers on the probably merely wiped down surfaces (“presterilization”) inside.

    I can also find papers where the researchers propose to paint lots of bacterias with appropriate tracers on the drilling systems, since the usual background contamination contribute so much biological material that any searched for bacterias (here in Antarctica ice core drilling) partly drown in it:

    “Our investigations on ice from the Vostok core (Antarctica) have shown that the outer portion of the cores have up to 3 and 2 orders of magnitude higher bacterial density and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) than the inner portion of the cores, respectively, as a result of drilling and handling. The extreme gradients that exist between the outer and inner portion of these samples make contamination a very relevant aspect of geomicrobiological investigations with ice cores, particularly when the actual numbers of ambient bacterial cells are low. To address this issue and the inherent concern it raises for the integrity of future investigations with ice core materials from terrestrial and extraterrestrial environments, we employed a procedure to monitor the decontamination process in which ice core surfaces are painted with a solution containing a tracer microorganism, plasmid DNA, and fluorescent dye before sampling. Using this approach, a simple and direct method is proposed to verify the authenticity of geomicrobiological results obtained from ice core materials. Our protocol has important implications for the design of life detection experiments on Mars and the decontamination of samples that will eventually be returned to Earth. [“Glacial ice cores: A model system for developing extraterrestrial decontamination protocols”, 2004; my bold.]”

    I.e. they likely use a divide-and-conquer method to see where the contamination is low enough so the remainder is genuine sample. [Paywalls, a most harmful contamination of the internet – diluting the science in real time for your pleasure.]

    Now if you argue that humans will contaminate more than mechanical probes, I agree. But they will also explore more, so it may make sense if we want to find any extant or extinct life anytime soon.

    [The idea that earth adapted organisms will out-compete any mars adapted organisms, or vice versa, is AFAIU not biologically creditable. ]

  63. Cheyenne

    @Torbjorn- Wow. That’s a good post and I agree with you. Well, everything except the fact that humans would explore more than robots (and how they will be designed 30 years from now).

    But also, the “contamination” aspect of my comment (while still a valid argument according to many astrobiologists) is really the last and weakest of the arguments. Even if it was completely false I don’t think that means – in the short to mid-term – that spending money and time on plans for manned missions (and truly recognizing what that opportunity cost is) makes sense.

  64. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Earth was once completely covered with ice,

    Excuse my ignorance in this matter, but I thought that was a controversial minor viewpoint of geologists, let alone assured? It is awfully hard to prove a global cover, and I seem to see recent papers that criticize both the observations and the theories heavily. (Sorry, no references handy.)

    Now I think biologists, even those who is suspicious of some putative early evidences for life (say, Cavallier-Smith), may jump on these theories relatively uncritically because it could be a putative suppressor and/or trigger for the Vendian and Cambrian diversifications after Earth earlier oxygenation. But what do the experts say?

    and we still don`t know for sure if theres even water there,

    Um, water in the form of ice has been relatively assured for a long time, hasn’t it? Anyway, now we know for sure it is there, and presentations from this year additionally have some (certainly still debatable) evidences for the possibility of liquid water brines. (Google Phoenix. You can see the suggested water drops, and how they move and coalesce, on photos.)

  65. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Cheyenne, thanks. I can see where you are coming from too, and I can agree that manned missions may be (probably is) a waste in the short to mid-term perspective.

    [I could argue a lot about the specific problems around findings of trace fossils, and how the biologists AFAIU wants to have more than one identifiable characteristic right to make sure. But it isn’t remotely interesting if the purpose of the next rover is merely to study habitability and organics.]

  66. Charlie Young

    Your favorite camera in the whole Solar System…as opposed to your least favorite…Canon as beseeched on Twitter.

  67. MadScientist

    Wow … that’s the sort of detail that Carl Sagan was hoping he’d live to see; though he may not have seen it, his belief that this is the sort of thing we’re likely to see has been vindicated. Of course NASA could just be hiding the equally detailed pictures of structures created by intelligent beings – after all, no one wants to be known as the first person to find indisputable evidence of past civilization on Mars.

  68. Buzz Parsec

    Kuhnigget – I was thinking of the exact same example…

  69. Buzz Parsec

    Oh, and that’s no moonxxxx mesa! That (the round one in the middle) is a Giant Space Limpet!

    I for one want to be the first to welcome our new Giant Space Limpet Overlords.

  70. Surprised I haven’t seen this take yet:

    Sand formations like these on earth are constantly changing over time as the wind shapes the dunes. What fun it would be to take pictures of these features over time to see how these things change, and I’m sure they are. You’d even wind up with a time lapse of a type.

    Imagine getting to a point in our understanding of Mars that we can take a sample of regolith and determine where on the planet it originated from?

  71. When I go to Mars, that’s the first place I’ll visit :)

  72. Richard

    Doesn’t that white mesa have a familiar shape. Although its face (pun most intentionally intended) doesn’t have much detail, it does look like a more “controversial” feature.


    There’s a Martian Satan planting false mesas to make us think that the “Face on Mars” ain’t real.

    Or, Hoagland’s full of regolith.

  73. Blind Squirrel FCD

    I can has scale bar?

  74. Darth Robo

    That white mesa is obviously from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s JACK, THE PUMPKIN KING!

    Re Tatooine: Tatooine has plenty of geography, lots of rocks and underground lakes if one knows where to look. Prospectors keep attempting to set up mines their, but the ore is apparently flawed and not suitable for construction. The planet used to be lush and fertile until the Rakatans messed it up thousands of years ago. The survivors overthrew the Rakatans, and they eventually split into two species, Sandpeople and the Jawas. Nowadays the planet is used as a Hutt base and a handy place to go on the outer rim if you wanna keep out the way of the Empire.

    I bet no-one could’a guessed I was a Star Wars geek?


  75. Grand Lunar

    When I saw the image, as well as the title, I couldn’t help but think of “Dune”.

    I wonder if some future Mars inhabitants/sci-fi geeks might give that nickname to the Red Planet.

  76. JonMcSkeptic

    So, I’m all for increased spending to fund mining for the spice of life. Where’re the wormsigns?

  77. Earthling

    ” Out there. That-a way. First star on the left. The Undiscovered Country.”
    We are coming. I don’t know if that is a warning or a promise. But we are coming.

  78. Gary Ansorge

    Then, of course, there are these pics of another desert planet:


    Similar but not the same,,,

    GAry 7

  79. Cheyenne

    Check out the OpEd pages of the New York Times today if you want to see what Seth Soshtak has to say about what we are doing (and could be doing) with our space program. Another interesting take on some issues.


  80. TheBlackCat

    Not only does Expedition by Wayne Douglas Barlowe have different regions with different climates (some very different than any found on earth), but the book is broken up by climactic region rather than chronologically, with each chapter dealing with a different climate with its own collection of animals and plants (and some uncategorizable organisms), even though the narrator visits most of the regions many times.

  81. James

    I often wonder why people bother moisture farming when they could probably ship compressed hydrogen and burn it for water far more economically.

  82. @Todd W “And talking about a year-long sit on the planet is jumping the gun a bit, dontcha think? Any manned mission would probably be only a few days at most for the first bunch of missions. Year-long stints would be quite a ways off.”

    The first manned missions to Mars will be constrained by fuel efficiency are are likely to use Hohmann transfer orbits. In such a mission the total time is 30.67 to 33.19 months with a waiting time at Mars of 14.91 months. The 15-month delay at Mars is needed for the proper realignment of the Earth-versus-Mars position to occur. Thus, a more than 1 year wait at Mars is to be expected for the first Mars mission. How much of that time is spent on the surface of Mars is anyone’s guess.

  83. Todd W.

    @Tom Marking

    Thanks for the numbers and the explanation as to why it would be that long.

  84. @Todd W. “Thanks for the numbers and the explanation as to why it would be that long.”

    Click on my name for a link to a good web page which gives the derivation of these numbers. Over on the left side you want to select:

    21b. Fly to Mars! (1)
    21c. Fly to Mars! (2)
    21d. Fly to Mars! (3)

    They derive a wait time at Mars of 454 days which is approximately the same as the 14.9 months I calculated myself. So those links have all the details. Probably more than you wanted to know.

  85. @paul “Human explorers have one infinite advantage over probes- on the spot intuition and reaction. Any robotic explorer will always be constrained by their rigid programing and a minimal 20 minute lag between itself and controllers.”

    Mars came within 55,758,000 km of Earth on August 27, 2003. Light would have taken 3.1 minutes to go from Earth to Mars, and 6.2 minutes for a round-trip. So that’s considerably less than the “minimal 20 minute lag” being cited.


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