Astronomers just discovered a Morse code message in the dunes of Mars

NASA has spotted a series of strange, dark dunes on Mars that look uncannily like the dots and dashes that make up Morse code.

This isn’t the first time researchers have spotted this pattern in the sands of Mars, but thanks to its unique topography, this dune field – just south of the planet’s north pole – shows them in clearer detail than usual, allowing scientists to translate the message for the first time.

To be clear, this message is naturally formed – just like the dunes here on Earth, the dots and dashes of the dunes were carved out by the direction of the wind. There’s no spooky alien stuff at play here, promise.

As a press release from NASA explains, what makes the patterns in this dune so prominent is the fact that it’s found inside a natural circular depression, which means there’s a limited amount of sand available to be pushed around by the local winds.

The long ‘dashes’ are formed by bi-directional winds, which means wind that’s travelling at right angles to the dune.

Over time, wind coming from either direction funnels the material into a long, dark line, as you can see in the close-up image below:

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The Martian ‘dots’ are officially known as ‘barchanoid dunes‘, and are a little more mysterious.

Geophysicists believe they’re formed when something interrupts the production of the linear dunes – but NASA still isn’t quite sure what that is, and figuring it out is part of the reason they were photographing the region.

These images were taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, which is on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been photographing the Red Planet for the past decade.

With more observation, geophysicists are hoping that they’ll be able to figure out more about how the dunes on the surface of Mars form, and what that can tell us about the potential habitability of the planet.

But while they’re figuring that out, NASA planetary scientist Veronica Bray translated the Morse code message for Maddie Stone over at Gizmodo.

So what do the sands of Mars have to tell us? According to Bray:


It’s very deep stuff – and not intended as anything other than a bit of geophysial fun.

But reading the sands of Mars might one day help us better understand life on the surface of our potential future outpost, so it’s worth paying attention.


Source: Science Alert Gizmodo

Liquid water flows on today’s Mars: NASA confirms evidence

Dark, narrow streaks on Martian slopes such as these at Hale Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on contemporary Mars. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Dark, narrow streaks on Martian slopes such as these at Hale Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on contemporary Mars. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

New findings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

“We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks,” said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings published Sept. 28 by Nature Geoscience.

Ojha first noticed these puzzling features as a University of Arizona undergraduate student in 2010, using images from the MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars. The new study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren’t as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.

Ojha and his co-authors interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius). On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts, and some types of perchlorates can be used as rocket propellant.

Perchlorates have previously been seen on Mars. NASA’s Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover both found them in the planet’s soil, and some scientists believe that the Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts. However, this study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form, in different areas than those explored by the landers. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.

MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.

“The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are,” said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present-day water.

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” he said. “Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.”

The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA’s Mars missions.

“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Lujendra Ojha, Mary Beth Wilhelm, Scott L. Murchie, Alfred S. McEwen, James J. Wray, Jennifer Hanley, Marion Massé & Matt Chojnacki. Spectral evidence for hydrated salts in recurring slope lineae on Mars AOP. Nature Geoscience, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2546

Crew Wraps Up Mock Mars Mission With Reddit AMA

If you took a six-month or two-year (or maybe even a one-way) trip to Mars, what would your life really be like once you land? How would you exercise? What would you eat? And, laundry? Pssh. How would you even have water in the first place?

Scientists participating in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission here on Earth have spent the past four months studying these questions in a Martian-like environment in Hawaii. They opened up their communication systems to answer questions on Sunday in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything, and by the looks of it, they may have gone a little cooky.

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The HI-SEAS program, which is funded by NASA and organized by the University of Hawaii, simulates the living conditions and challenges future astronauts may face on Mars. It was designed to study how a crew adjusts to a Mars-like habitat both mentally and physically.

The “Mars” mission crew, made up of six researchers, is stationed in a 1,000 square-foot domed habitat a mile up a rocky road on Hawaii Island’s Mauna Loa volcano — a landscape similar to the Tharsis region on Mars. The mission began March 28 and ends this Friday, July 25.

In the AMA Q&A, conversation ranged from how to deal if somebody dies, to the perils of boredom, to whether a Mars resident would be 100 percent vegetarian.

Below, we’ve listed some of our favorite insights from the AMA.

What do you people do for fun?

Ross Lockwood (crew member): Movie nights, boardgames, exercise all top the list of things we do for fun. We don’t have a lot of spare time, but I count work as part of the fun as well. Planning EVAs, preparing food, even chores – these are all enjoyable activities.


Let’s face it — space can be dangerous, no matter the precautions and training, so I’m wondering: has there been any training/discussion on how to cope with severe medical crises, or — heaven forbid — death, while far from Earth or even on the Martian surface?

Jack Cope (mission support): Good point, it certainly is dangerous and we do need to prepare for everything! During this mission we have not studied medical crises per say but we did have a simulation where the crew were asked to prepare an emergency shelter outside the habitat in a lava tube for rapid evac during increased solar partial activity. I am sure that we will expand on this during our subsequent (and longer) missions as it is hugely important.


How efficient is your water recovery/resupply process? I also wonder about laundry. Laundry uses water, and needs a lot of space to hang clothes. Even tumble dryers aren’t an answer to everything. And laundry generates humidity, which generates other issues.

Joseph Gruber (mission support): Great point and this is one of the areas being researched in the HI-SEAS missions through the NASA Johnson Space Center Advanced Clothing Study. One of the goals is long-duration wear so that laundry is less of a concern than here on Earth. Even on the International Space Station clothing is worn for a long duration then thrown away as opposed to doing laundry.


Have you considered transportation on the surface [of Mars], for a long stay? If you are there for three years, you could travel say, 1,000 km over the surface, and back again, if you have a motorized Mars buggy or a rocket powered hopper of some sort.

Ross Lockwood (crew member): The HI-SEAS mission does geological work while out on EVA to explore and identify possible natural structures for human habitation and materials storage. However, we are very limited to what we can actually do in the field, mostly out of respect for the natural environment around the habitat. The lava fields themselves are almost impossible to traverse on foot, and would be impossible and perilous to traverse in any type of vehicle (4-wheel drives included). So as far as the HI-SEAS mission is concerned, we’ve all but eliminated the possibility of vehicular travel in this study. With that being said, there are a lot of groups exploring the idea of small buggies (think MDRS) and robotic vehicles (think PICSES).


How would you suggest spacecraft habitat designers improve the experience of going to or staying on Mars?

Gary Strawn (mission support): How can we improve the experience of staying on Mars? Well, I can think of a lot of really important things like bringing air, water, food and a radiation shelter. What I worry about is the potential to forget little things like zippers that can be operated while wearing large space suit gloves, water jugs with special lids and handles and some kind of spacesuit backpack or fanny pack. Hopefully, when we send humans to Mars, we will have done enough missions like HI-SEAS that we’ll remember to bring the really important stuff like extra toilet paper.


When do you think we’ll actually be doing this on Mars? What is the biggest accomplishment you see us achieving in our very near future?

Jack Cope (mission support): In the near future, I’m again looking to perhaps someone sending a man to the Moon and actually staying there for a good amount of time (we only scratched the surface with Apollo). I think we need something like this to bring back the excitement we had during the 60s; probes and rovers may bring you a lot of science but there is nothing like looking up into the sky and knowing ‘someone like me is up there.’