NASA’s Curiosity rover has captured images of clouds on Mars – as described in its blog post: “Wispy puffs filled with ice crystals that diffused the light of the setting sun, some of which shimmered in color.”
Clouds are rare in Mars’ thin atmosphere, according to NASA, but typically form at its equator during the coldest time of year. Scientists noticed that last year – two years ago in Earth days – clouds were starting to form earlier than expected, so this year they were ready.
The images are not only stunning, they have provided new information to NASA’s Curiosity team. The first clouds are at higher altitudes than most Martian clouds – which typically hover about 37 miles above the planet’s surface and are made up of water ice. Higher altitude clouds are likely made up of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice, according to NASA.
Curiosity provided black-and-white and color images – black-and-white photos show the wavy details of the clouds more clearly.
But it’s the color photos taken from the rover’s mast camera and stitched together from multiple images that are truly breathtaking. NASA describes them:
Seen just after sunset, their ice crystals pick up the fading light, causing them to glow against the darkening sky. These crepuscular clouds, also known as “noctilucent” clouds (Latin for “night shining”), become brighter when they fill with crystals, then darken after the sun’s position in the sky. sky falls below their altitude. This is just a useful clue that scientists use to determine their height.
Curiosity also captured images of iridescent “mother of pearl” clouds, with pastel colors throughout. Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., Said in the NASA post that these colors come from cloud particles of almost identical size. “It usually happens right after the clouds have formed and all grown at the same rate,” he explained.
Lemmon said he marveled at the colors that appear in these clouds; reds and greens and blues and purples. “It’s really cool to see something shining in a lot of color on Mars.”