Thanks to NASA’s Mars rovers, we’re learning more about the Red Planet. But they allow us to enjoy some remarkable photos, too. Recently, the Curiosity rover captured a rare sight on Mars: clouds. Even though this landscape photo looks like it was taken on Earth, it’s actually a rarely seen cloudy day on our neighboring planet.
Due to the thin and dry atmosphere of Mars, it’s not very common to see the clouds there. “Clouds are typically found at the planet’s equator in the coldest time of year when Mars is the farthest from the Sun in its oval-shaped orbit,” NASA writes. “But one full Martian year ago – two Earth years – scientists noticed clouds forming over NASA’s Curiosity rover earlier than expected.”
So, this year, the scientists were well prepared for the show. They started documenting these “early” clouds as soon as they first appeared in late January. The clouds you see in the photo above are filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting Sun. But as I always mention, this photo wasn’t just made for us to enjoy. It’s just a bonus, really, since photos like this primarily help scientists understand the Red Planet better. This photo helps them understand how clouds form on Mars and why these recent ones are different from typical Martian clouds.
“In fact, Curiosity’s team has already made one new discovery,” NASA explains further. “The early-arrival clouds are actually at higher altitudes than is typical.”
“Most Martian clouds hover no more than about 37 miles (60 kilometers) in the sky and are composed of water ice. But the clouds Curiosity has imaged are at a higher altitude, where it’s very cold, indicating that they are likely made of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice. Scientists look for subtle clues to establish a cloud’s altitude, and it will take more analysis to say for sure which of Curiosity’s recent images show water-ice clouds and which show dry-ice ones.”
There’s another beautiful photo to enjoy, showing iridescent, or “mother of pearl” clouds. “If you see a cloud with a shimmery pastel set of colors in it, that’s because the cloud particles are all nearly identical in size,” said Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate.”
Lemmon added that these “mother of pearl” clouds are among the most colorful things on Mars. In fact, you could even see the colors with a naked eye if you were observing them next to Curiosity, which certainly isn’t usual for other Martian phenomena. “It’s really cool to see something shining with lots of color on Mars,” Lemmon concluded. And it is, indeed!
[via The Verge]