Curious Dunes

A distant sun sets over reddened lands,

As ripples lay before you like a wave;

Try reach out with your cold, synthetic hands,

And touch the ground that will become your grave.

These unscathed marks are footprints in the sands

That shackle you and bind you like a slave.

Your unseen masters tell you where to roam

And whilst this is your tomb it is not home.


You trace along the contours with such care,

As if you were entwined in lustful sleep

And observe every nick and every tear

Like any fault or flaw would make you weep.

You chant the lengths out as if lost in prayer,

And let your thoughts into the ether seep.

We piece together everything you’ve seen

And claim it as our own insightful dream.


The patterns that you pick out in the dust

Are alien in almost every way;

Too short to be created with a gust,

And yet too long to have been made by spray.

Your limbs are coated in a ruddy rust,

With liberated trails left in the clay.

As you become part of the land you scry

Your findings help us probe that ancient sky.


An artist’s concept of the Mars Curiosity rover (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
An artist’s concept of the Mars Curiosity rover (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).


This is an Ottava Rima inspired by recent research that found a new type of sand dune on Mars. On Earth, the wind produces two distinct types of sand dunes: those that have ripples that are approximately 10 cm in length, and those which are a few hundred metres to a kilometre in length. However, observations from the Mars Curiosity rover have revealed that on Mars there is a distinctive third group of sand dunes that are of the order of a few metres in length. The measurements made by Curiosity were taken at the “Bagnold Dunes” on the northwestern flank of Mars’ Mount Sharp.

The size of the wind-formed ripples is related to the density of the atmosphere, i.e. a thicker atmosphere would produce sand dunes that are much smaller in length. Monitoring sand dunes in areas of Mars where the age of the surface is known can then tell us information as to how thick or thin the Martian atmosphere was at various points in its existence. Current evidence seems to suggest that Mars lost most of its original atmosphere early in the planet’s history.

An audio version of this poem can be heard here.

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