Orbiter Snaps Photo of Star Trek Logo Shaped Dune on Mars

The dune formed through years of molten lava and wind.
Jessica Miley

Images taken from the from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show a sand dune that look remarkably similar to the famous Star Trek logo. While researchers from the University of Arizona, who are part of MROs ground team have assured us it's only a coincidence, the resemblance is so close that even Star Trek actor William Shatner who played Captain Kirk in the hit series is talking about it.

"Enterprising viewers will make the discovery that these features look conspicuously like a famous logo," the University of Arizona, which manages the MRO HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera, said in a statement. "You'd be right, but it's only a coincidence."


Shape formed through combination of lava and wind

The unusual shaped dune is located in Hellas Planitia, in the red planets Southern hemisphere. The University of Arizona explains that a combination of lava and wind formed the chevron shape of the dune. It seems that despite our amazement, this sort of formation isn’t unusual for the scientists who are observing Mars.

After years of observing the red planet, scientists have formed a pretty good theory about how these beautiful shapes form. Long ago there were large crescent-shaped (barchan) dunes that shifted across the plain.


At some point an eruption from below Mars'surface caused lava to flow over the plain and around the dunes, but it didn’t rise over them. The lava then hardened and over time the dunes blew away leaving their imprints behind like footprints on a beach. This phenomenon is also known as a 'dunecasts,' it is a kind of physical archive of how the landscape previously looked.

The Mars Orbiter has already worked more than double its planned mission life since its launch in 2005. NASA says they plan to continue to use the orbiter past the mid 2020s. There are a couple of things the mission crew will change to ensure this hardworking piece of equipment can continue its valuable work.

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First, the researchers will shift the emphasis from use of the spacecraft's aging gyroscope towards its star tracker. Another step to ensure the longevity of the mission is ‘wringing’ more useful life from its batteries.

Refocus helps extend the mission

These shifts cause some slight degradation in the capabilities of the instrument but overall mean the mission can continue well past its expected life. "We know we're a critical element for the Mars Program to support other missions for the long haul, so we're finding ways to extend the spacecraft's life," said MRO Project Manager Dan Johnston of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

"In-flight operations, our emphasis is on minimizing risk to the spacecraft while carrying out an ambitious scientific and programmatic plan." JPL partners with Lockheed Martin Space, Denver, in operating the spacecraft.

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