NASA Curiosity Photographs Clouds on Mars
Most of the Red Planet’s clouds hover about 60 kilometers or less in the sky and are made up of water ice. The latest capture by Curiosity shows the clouds at a higher altitude, where it is very cold.
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This photo was not taken from the Grand Canyon in the United States. In fact, this image was not even photographed on Earth. Here is a photo of Mont Mercou, a cliff on Mars. The contrast of gray clouds over Brown Mountain was filmed by NASA’s Curiosity rover on March 19, 2021 – – the day it completed 3,063 Martian days, or ground. The image is a collection of 21 separate images assembled and color corrected so that the location appears as it would to a human eye. The rover studied this cliff to better understand the red planet.
While it is rare to spot clouds on Mars, this capture by the rover is an even rarer phenomenon. This is because, as far as we know the fourth planet, clouds usually appear during the coldest time of the year near the equator of Mars, when the planet is furthest from the Sun. Two years ago on Earth (a full year on Mars), NASA scientists noticed clouds forming over the rover earlier than expected.
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It was then that they decided to explore this phenomenon in depth from the start. So, they started tracking the “first” clouds at the end of January and spotted “wispy puffs” filled with ice crystals that diffused the light of the setting sun, some of them sparkling with color. The Curiosity team analyzing the clouds was more interested in the formation of these “puffs” than in their spectacular exposures.
Initial discovery and clues for the next one
When they made their first cloud discovery on Mars, the team noted that “clouds that arrive early are actually at higher altitudes than usual.” Most of the Red Planet’s clouds hover about 60 kilometers or less in the sky and are made up of water ice. The latest capture by Curiosity shows the clouds at a higher altitude, where it is very cold. This translates to a higher likelihood of clouds formed by frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice, NASA said in a blog post.
“I am always amazed by the colors that appear: reds and greens and blues and purples,” said Mark Lemmon, atmospheric scientist at the US Institute for Space Science at NASA. “It’s really cool to see something shining in a lot of color on Mars.”
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The results are not yet final as scientists will need to do more analysis to know for sure which of the recent images photographed by Curiosity contains clouds of water ice and which has clouds of dry ice. One of the clues that scientists use to determine cloud elevation is to observe crepuscular clouds, also known as “noctilucents”. As the sun sets, the ice crystals in the cloud catch the fading light, causing them to glow against the darkening sky. They gradually darken as the position of the sun in the sky descends below their altitude. This will help scientists calculate the position of clouds in the sky.
Discoveries like this one by the Curiosity rover are helping scientists better understand Earth’s neighbor, its topography and climatic conditions.