Whether you’re a Star Trek fan or not, there is no doubt that a picture of a geological feature on Mars’ surface looks more than a little like the iconic Star Trek Starfleet logo from the USS Enterprise. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been exploring the red planet from orbit since 2006, captured the series of strange chevron symbols on a Martian sand dune in the southeast Hellas Planitia region.
However, don’t expect to find Mister Spock, Doctor McCoy, or Jean-Luc Picard squatting nearby. Just like the famous “face on Mars,” the space agency was keen to stress that this appropriate insignia was produced by the result of “a complex story of dunes, lava, and wind.” Ross Beyer, the Principal Investigator with the Carl Sagan Centre at the SETI Institute, also said in a statement: “Enterprising viewers will make the discovery that these features look conspicuously like a famous logo,” “You’d be right, but it’s only a coincidence.”
The natural phenomenon actually shows how Mars has developed over its history. University of Arizona academics, who manage the MRO HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera, have spent years studying the features they see in Mars images, and they think they have a good sense of how this particular shape came to be. On ancient Mars, there were huge crescent-shaped dunes, called barchan dunes, that moved over the area. An eruption meant that larva flowed around the dunes but did not reach their top. When the molten substance cooled, the sand dunes remained, “stuck up like islands,” according to the statement.
“However, they were still just dunes, and the wind continued to blow,” the Arizona HiRISE team added. “Eventually, the sand piles that were the dunes migrated away, leaving these ‘footprints’ in the lava plain. These are also called ‘dune casts’ and record the presence of dunes that were surrounded by lava.”
University of Arizona academics, who manage the MRO HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera, have spent years studying the features they see in Mars images, and they think they have a good sense of how this particular shape came to be
These casts are often referred to as ‘ghost dunes’ and, although they’re known here on Earth, their presence on Mars has only been recently explored. In the Hellas Planitia, there are around 300 of these formations, and a further 480 have been identified in a region called the Noctis Labyrinthus, filled with a maze of valleys.
Despite knowing the truth, this did not get in the way of a good old Star Trek vs Star Wars Twitter feud, as William Shatner, famous for playing Captain James T Kirk took a dig at Mark Hamill (AKA Luke Skywalker). Bill Nye and LeVar Burton (known for his role as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation) also took to Twitter to express their excitement.
These casts are often referred to as ‘ghost dunes’ and, although they’re known here on Earth, their presence on Mars has only been recently explored
While the Star Trek feature itself may be a coincidence, the MRO has truly lived long and prospered at the Red Planet. The orbiter, which completed its 60,000th trip around the Red Planet last month, has been sending back high-resolution imagery for 13 years, well past its design lifetime. It also serves as a vital communications relay for NASA’s Curiosity rover and Insight lander and is expected to support the Mars 2020 rover mission when that craft lands on the Martian planet.