The new image was taken by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently in orbit above the Red Planet. The photograph, taken on 30 December, reveals several of these structures, spread out across the Martian surface, near Mawrth Vallis, one of the oldest valleys on the Red Planet.
While Star Trek fans may delight in the resemblance of theses feature to the Starfleet logo, astronomers have a simple explanation for their formation. The say wind storms were responsible for the creation of these natural structures. Similar features, called barchan dunes, have been observed in deserts on Earth. On Mars, sand is created from powerful winds blowing over basalt. When the northern hemisphere of Mars is experiencing summer, the distinctive dunes appear darker than during colder seasons.
Seen in a wider image, these structures lie in the same familiar shape as birds during long flights.
“Migratory birds and military aircraft often fly in a V-shaped formation. The “V” formation greatly boosts the efficiency and range of flying birds, because all except the first fly in the upward motion of air – called upwash – from the wingtip vortices of the bird ahead. In this image of a dune field on Mars in a large crater near Mawrth Vallis, some of the dunes appear to be in a V-shaped formation. For dune fields, the spacing of individual dunes is a function of sand supply, wind speed, and topography,” NASA wrote in its website.
Airplanes often take advantage of the same air currents birds use to assist their flight. During the Second World War, vast fleets of aircraft would fly in V-shaped formations during long missions.
Mawrth Vallis is located about 22 degrees above the Martian equator, about the same latitude as Hong Kong on Earth. The floor of the valley lies one-and-a-quarter miles beneath the average Martian surface altitude.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2005, on a mission to explore the Red Planet. The new image was taken from more than 15,000 miles above the Martian surface. The mission cost was $720 million. The orbiter also serves as one of the first hubs of what will become the first interplanetary network, much like the internet. This service will be utilized by spacecraft for communications and data transfer.
The Starfleet may not be on Mars just yet, but once we get there, we’ll be able to download all the Star Trek movies.