NASA’s Curiosity rover is getting its wheels dirty. The latest image beamed back from the red planet shows the rover in the thick of it.

Curiosity sand dune

57 images taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera were stitched together for the awesome self-portrait.

What’s Curiosity up to? The rover team parked the rover near active sand dunes (known as the Bagnold Dunes) and has been studying them for two months. Scientists are getting an up-close look at how Martian winds are moving and sorting sand particles on Mars.

We know the Bagnold Dunes are active. Images captured from Mars’ orbit shows the dunes moving as much as three feet every Earth year.

This particular dune is called Namib Dune. When the above image was taken, Curiosity had just collected its first scoop of sand. A second sample was taken right after the images were taken, and a third sample three days later.

Using a device on the rover’s arm dubbed the CHIMRA (Collection and Handling for In-situ Martian Rock Analysis), scientists were able to see how big the sand grains are. In the second sample, Curiosity used two different sieves to get a sample ready for analysis. It was the first time a two-sieve operation had been used since the rover made it to Mars.

One sieve had pores of 150 microns or 0.006 inches. And another had pores of 1,000 microns or 0.04 inches. Scientists noted sand grains that were too large for the 150 microns sieve, but too small for the 1,000 microns sieve. The in-between sand grains were sent to the rover’s internal laboratory for analysis.

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A third scoop was supposed to be tested the same way, but an actuator malfunctioned during processing. A thwack actuator, when working right, opens a component on the CHIMRA. But, it didn’t open on the third sample.

“The rover responded properly to this unexpected event, said Steve Lee, deputy project manager for Curiosity. “It stopped moving the actuator and halted further use of the arm and sampling system.”

Right now, scientists are still going through diagnostic work to see what caused the malfunction. But, that doesn’t mean Curiosity can’t still work. The rover’s mast remains trained on the dune looking for any signs of movement. If sand grains start to shift, the rover will be able to tell how fast the wind blew and from which direction. Those measurements could provide scientists with a baseline for how much wind is needed to affect similar dunes.

More images of Namib Dune

It doesn’t look it, but Namib Dune is about 13 feet high. Let’s take a look at the downwind side.

namib sand dune

That steep downwind slope is what really sets sand dunes apart. Known as the slip face, sand piles up as it’s sheltered from the wind. As it continues to pile up, mini-avalanches fall down the face. NASA released another image of Namib Dune highlighting the various features.

namib sand dune features

What’s next for Curiosity? The rover team is looking at potential sites to use Curiosity’s drill to collect bedrock samples in the area.

Image credits: NASA

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