In November 2015, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover started exploring the Bagnold Dunes, a 35-kilometer-long (about 22 miles) and 1-2 km wide (0.62-1.25 mi) group of dark grey dunes in the Gale Crater on Mars, on the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. The dunes are named after the 20th-century desert explorer, geologist, and soldier Ralph Alger Bagnold (3 April 1896- 28 May 1990), who staged the first recorded East-to-West crossing of the Libyan Desert in 1932. Curiosity’s exploration of the area continued for about 1.5 years, ending in April 2017.

Curiosity’s exploration was the first time ever that scientists have explored an active dune system on another planet.

The samples taken by the Curiosity Rover in the dunes contained organic compounds, according to a research paper published on November 1, 2021. Please note that detecting organic compounds doesn’t automatically means there was life on Mars.

Bagnold Dunes, Mars
Part of the Bagnold Dune Field in Gale Crater on Mars. The dunes in the photo above are called “wind-drag ripples”. Bagnold Dunes was named to honor Brigadier Bagnold, who staged the first recorded East-to-West crossing of the Libyan Desert and was one of the first explorers to acquire a deep understanding of the physics behind sand dunes. Image by Peter D. Tillman, with crop and a bit of reprocessing – Namib dune, Gale Crater, which links to the original NASA-JPL source image, and a couple of discussions of the dunes. Public Domain, Link

According to NASA, “…[Curiosity’s] journey through the Bagnold Dunes has helped advanced our understanding of how winds shape modern Martian landscapes, and the properties of windblown materials, in the form of both the active Bagnold dunes and in ancient Martian dunes now preserved as rock in units such as the overlying geological formation called the Stimson formation at Gale crater.”

Bagnold Dunes, Mars
Part of the Bagnold Dune Field in Gale Crater on Mars. Mr. Tillman’s image is cropped from this NASA image. See the original NASA-JPL source image.
Marias Pass on Mars. Curiosity image.
This May 22, 2015, view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) in NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the “Marias Pass” area where a lower and older geological unit of mudstone — the pale zone in the center of the image — lies in contact with an overlying geological unit of sandstone. The formation on the left is the “Stimson formation”, and the formation in the middle of the photo is called Murray formation”, a distinctive mudstone geologic formation. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Ralph Bagnold

The Bagnold Dunes are named after Brigadier Ralph Alger Bagnold, OBE, FRS, (3 April 1896 – 28 May 1990) was an English 20th-century desert explorer, geologist, and also a soldier who served in both World Wars. He was the first person to cross the Libyan Desert from East-to-West in 1932.

During World War I, he spent three years in the trenches in France. After the war, he studied engineering at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, obtaining an MA before returning to active duty with the British Army in 1920.

In 1932 he explored the Mourdi Depression, in present-day Chad, and found implements dated to the Palaeolithic period in the valley. Bagnold wrote of his travels in the book Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World (first published 1935 and reprinted by Eland in 2010).

He is credited with developing a sun compass, a surveying instrument that makes use of the sun’s direction instead of magnetism, which is a useful device in the Libyan Desert because large iron ore deposits found in the desert areas, also large metal vehicles can affect the traditional magnetic compass.

Ralph Bagnold during the 2nd World War
Ralph Bagnold during the 2nd World War (he is driving the car). He and his traveling companions were early pioneers in the use of motor vehicles to explore the desert.

Bagnold and his friends were also the first who began the practice of reducing tire pressure when driving over loose sand to get better traction.

He then served in the Second World War. He wrote:

“Never in our peacetime travels had we imagined that war could ever reach the enormous empty solitudes of the inner desert, walled off by sheer distance, lack of water, and impassable seas of sand dunes. Little did we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we had evolved for very long-distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious use.”

He formed a military unit in July 1940 with the name Long Range Desert Group (L.R.D.G.).

On 7 June 1944, Bagnold retired from the British Army with the end of military operations in North Africa after the Axis powers’ defeat in that theatre. and returned to his scientific interests, being elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in the same year.

After the war, Bagnold continued to work in the field of geological science. He published academic papers into his nineties. He made significant contributions to the understanding of desert terrains such as sand dunes, ripples, and sheets. He developed the dimensionless “Bagnold number” and “Bagnold formula” for characterizing sand flow.

Ralph Bagnold died at Hither Green (a district in south-east London) on 28 May 1990 at the age of 94.


M. Özgür Nevres

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