NASA photo of North Pole of Mars

This isn’t a microscopic photograph of a bacterial culture! It’s actually of rolling, hummocky dunes near the north pole of Mars. Taken with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s powerful HIRISE camera, the normally grey basaltic sand of the dunes is covered with pinkish dust literally made of rust – iron oxide.

What makes this image so bizarre, though, are the dark, parallel tendril-like features scattered throughout. What the heck are those? One clue is that they always seem to stretch downhill, as if something is flowing. Another can be found in the tendrils located left of center and down a bit: there’s a fuzzy pink oval emanating from one of them. Under magnification, you can see it’s a dust cloud… the debris raised up after an avalanche of sand on the Martian surface!

Those tendrils are from the darker material under the pink sand. When dry ice under the surface warms up in the summer, it disturbs and dislodges the gray basaltic sand around it. This slides downhill, creating these weird, hair-like features. It’s no surprise that some people mistook them for some form of life on the Red Planet! But I don’t see the need to make up fantasy-based scenarios for pictures like this one, when we can see that Mars is fantastic enough.