The resemblance is uncanny, but no, these aren’t Starfleet logos emblazoned on planet Vulcan. Perhaps fittingly, though, this NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image shows a section of an active dune field on Mars. Strong winds blowing in a single direction resulted in massive piles of basaltic sand about 200 meters wide and 20 meters tall that formed crescent-shaped “barchan dunes.” The imaging method—infrared shifted color—portrays them with a blue tint, but to the naked eye they would actually appear as neutral gray mounds sitting on the Red Planet’s signature colored backdrop.
This group of barchans rests at 23° N latitude and just west of Mawrth Vallis, one of the oldest valleys on Mars, famous for its clay mineral deposits that form only in the presence of water. As outlandish as they may appear, these dunes are no stranger to Earth. Barchans commonly form in deserts here, in places such as New Mexico, Namibia or Turkistan, where Russian naturalist Alexander von Middendorf introduced them to the scientific literature as “barchans,” a word borrowed from a Central Asian language.
This article was originally published on Scientific American on May 1, 2014.