July 17, 2012 — We may be looking forward to Mars rover Curiosity kicking up some Martian dust when it lands inside Gale Crater on Aug. 5/6, but as the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) continues to show us, there's a lot more of Mars to explore.
This spectacular photograph shows what looks like a strange extraterrestrial campsite — little tents with their doors all facing the same way. Sadly, we're not looking at an aerial view of a Martian Woodstock Festival, it is in fact an impressive swarm of dunes spread over a north polar plain.
The dunes are created by a prevailing northwesterly wind blowing sand into 100-meter wide mounds called barchans over what appears to be a permafrost region. As described by HiRISE's Virginia Gulick, the dunes sit atop polygonal patterns and "numerous meter-scale boulders are strewn throughout the region." The plain is located at a latitude of over 73 degrees — higher than the landing site for NASA's 2008 Mars Phoenix lander at 68 degrees north.