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Barchan Dunes on Mars

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These dunes are a fleet of Star Fleet communicator badges (combadge), flying in formation across the Martian surface. The geomorphology of why this happens has nothing to do with Star Trek or transporter beams, and everything to do with aerodynamics.


Why do these dunes look like something ripped from the chest of Spock, Captain Kirk, or other unwary crew from the Enterprise? The smooth curve with long trailing points is characteristic shape of a barchan dune, commonly created by a limited sand supply exposed to steady winds.

Dunes are an aeolian feature, created by the transportation of sediment by wind. Like birds, sand dunes fly in V-formations due to the aerodynamics of upwash. The tips of the dunes (or birds) create an upward current in the air, changing the deposition patterns for dunes further down-wind.


These are barchan dunes, the classic dune that forms in a flat landscape of limited sand and steady, one-directional winds. The rounded crest of the dune, a long, gentle slope, faces into the wind, with a sharp slope and long horns dangling down-wind behind it. If the sediment supply increases, barchan dunes collide, eventually forming long, irregular ridges called transverse dunes.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. For more HiRise explorations of Mars, consider these weird structures, or this eye-popping crater. For more on Star Trek, did you hear Captain Kirk won a NASA award?