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Gone with the wind: Eolian erasure of the Mars Rover tracks

July 1, 2010

The wheel tracks left by the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity are unique artificial markings on the surface of Mars. The tracks stretch several kilometers across diverse terrain in two widely separated regions of the planet. The initial appearance and characteristics of the tracks were well documented by the science and navigation cameras aboard the vehicles at the time the tracks were formed. Orbital observations by Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter document the erasure of the tracks over a period of more than 2 Mars years. Close‐up examinations of track crossings, where the rovers encountered tracks made hundreds of Martian solar days earlier, provide insights into the mechanisms and time scales of eolian alteration on Mars. These observations suggest that fallout of atmospheric dust plays only a minor role in obscuring rover tracks over time. Instead, track erasure is dominated by sediment that is transported by surface winds. Both deposition and erosion act to erase the rover tracks. The length scales for eolian sediment transport are hundreds of meters at least, much larger than the size of the tracks. Gradual processes such as dust devils and sand saltation have minor effects that can nonetheless erase rover tracks over long time periods. However, short‐lived strong wind events associated with seasonal dust storms have much more pronounced effects, significantly altering the tracks on time scales of days. These episodic strong winds tend to occur annually during the perihelion season. The time scale for track erasure is typically only 1 Martian year.

Publication Year 2010
Title Gone with the wind: Eolian erasure of the Mars Rover tracks
DOI 10.1029/2010JE003674
Authors Paul E. Geissler, R. Sullivan, M. Golombek, J. R. Johnson, Kenneth E. Herkenhoff, N. Bridges, Amy Vaughan, J. Maki, T. Parker, J. Bell
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Geophysical Research E: Planets
Index ID 70201004
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Astrogeology Science Center