NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit took this microscopic imager picture of the drift dubbed 'Serpent' on Spirit's 73rd martian day on Mars after successfully digging into the side of the drift. The image is the first-ever microscopic look inside a drift. It captures only the scuffed interior of the Serpent drift and is dominated by larger pea-shaped particles. These grains are not natural to the inside of the drift, but are crust particles that have tumbled into the scuffed area as a result of the digging. These grains lost their dust cover in the process of falling into the scuff, giving scientists clues about the strength -- or lack of strength -- of the bond between the dust and sand particles.
Most interesting to scientists are the fine grains making up the interior of Serpent drift. The grains of sand found within drifts or dunes on Earth are usually about 200 micrometers (.008 inches) in diameter -- much like sand on a beach. On Earth, dunes are formed when sand particles of this size are bounced across a surface by wind and collect together as drifts. Smaller particles, like the ones making up Serpent drift, would not necessarily collect into a dune on Earth, but would more likely be distributed across the surface like dust. The fine grains making up the interior of Serpent drift are no larger than 50 or 60 micrometers (.002 inches) and can be compared to silt on Earth.
How did this very fine material manage to accumulate into a drift? Earth-based tests that simulate the wind speed and atmospheric density of Mars have found it difficult to reproduce dunes with grain particles as small as those found in the Serpent drift. However, Earth-based tests cannot duplicate the gravity of Mars, which is one-third that of the gravity on Earth. This environmental factor is a likely contributor to the diminutive material making up Serpent drift.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/USGS
Browse Image | Medium Image | Full Res Image (NASA's Planetary Photojournal)