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JPL’s Curiosity Rover Images Shimmering Clouds on Mars

Published on Friday, May 28, 2021 | 3:33 pm
 
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Curiosity Mars Rover took images of shimmering clouds in the Martian sky in March of 2021. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Unwilling to give all the limelight to it’s younger brother, Perseverance, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Curiosity Mars Rover recently provided “stunning” images of rolling, shimmering, sometimes iridescent clouds in the Martian sky, JPL said Friday.

While Curiosity’s newer twin, which began its exploration of the Red Planet in February, has been keeping scientists and engineers busy, the Curiosity Rover, which arrived on Mars in 2012, continues its scientific mission.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Curiosity Mars Rover took images of shimmering clouds in the Martian sky in March of 2021. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

The new cloud images, which were taken in March, didn’t just provide picturesque views, but also piqued the interest of researchers.

Clouds are a rare phenomenon in the thin, dry atmosphere of Mars, according to JPL. And the ones recently photographed are even rarer, as they formed much earlier in the Martian year and much higher in the atmosphere than normal.

Scientists first noticed the unusual weather phenomenon last Martian year, or two years ago for Earthlings, JPL said in a written statement. So when the same unusual clouds began to form in recent months, the Curiosity team was eagerly poised to study it, poinint Curiosity’s cameras skyward.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Curiosity Mars Rover took images of shimmering clouds in the Martian sky in March of 2021. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

“What resulted are images of wispy puffs filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting Sun, some of them shimmering with color,” the statement said. “More than just spectacular displays, such images help scientists understand how clouds form on Mars and why these recent ones are different.”

Scientists suspect the reason for the high-altitude clouds may be that they are formed from frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, rather that more usual Martian clouds, which are made of water ice.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Curiosity Mars Rover took images of shimmering clouds in the Martian sky in March of 2021. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

“Viewed just after sunset, their ice crystals catch the fading light, causing them to appear to glow against the darkening sky. These twilight clouds, also known as ‘noctilucent’ — Latin for ‘night shining’ — clouds, grow brighter as they fill with crystals, then darken after the Sun’s position in the sky drops below their altitude,” according to the JPL statement.

“Even more stunning are iridescent, or ‘mother of pearl’ clouds,” the statement added.

They are believed to result when particles in a cloud all form at nearly the same size, explained Mark Lemmon, who works as an atmospheric scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“I always marvel at the colors that show up: reds and greens and blues and purples,” he said. “It’s really cool to see something shining with lots of color on Mars.”

More information on the Mars Curiosity Rover is available online at mars.nasa.gov/msl.

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