NASA’s Curiosity mission focuses on the rocks and geology of the Red Planet, but at the same time it’s trying to figure out what’s going on in the sky on Mars.
And this week, NASA released two GIFs showing drifting clouds over the exploration site on Mount Sharp, or “Aeolis Mons,” meaning “Mountain of the Wind.”
☁️ Just clouds drifting through the Martian sky. These wisps were ~50 miles (80 km) above me & the height suggests they’re made of carbon dioxide ice. These digitally-enhanced images from one of my navigation cameras were put together into 8-frame GIFs. https://t.co/msDbzywWMPpic.twitter.com/Rwhaot29nq
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) February 17, 2022
The Curiosity probe, which is now approaching its tenth year of exploration of the Red Planet, took pictures, one of which shows a scene that includes the view of Mars, and the other of clouds moving directly over Curiosity.
And it wasn’t an easy task, as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory noted in a blog post on Monday (February 15), because Curiosity’s cameras are not designed to look at the sky.
The Curiosity rover caught clouds above it on Mars. Curiosity captured these spectacular images at the end of last year, on December 12, 2021. The clouds were approx. at an altitude of 80 km, which suggests that they are composed of ice carbon dioxide.
— Erika (@_AstroErika) February 17, 2022
Instead, the rover’s cameras were dedicated to photographing Martian rocks and landscape features on its voyage to search for ancient signs of habitability.
In a blog post, JPL said: “Martian clouds are very faint in the atmosphere, so special imaging techniques are needed to see them. Multiple images are taken to be able to have a clear and steady background. This allows anything else moving within the image, such as clouds or Shadows, to become visible after subtracting this static background from each individual image.
The clouds (and their shadows on the surface) were captured in two films in eight frames, on December 12, 2021 during Sol 3,325 (the mission’s Sol day because days on the Red Planet are slightly longer than the 24-hour cycle on Earth).
“Scientists can calculate how fast the clouds are moving – and how high they are in the sky – by comparing the two perspectives,” NASA said.
The Curiosity probe used its navigation camera twice to examine clouds from two different perspectives, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which NASA says “allows scientists to calculate the speed and height of clouds, by comparing the two perspectives,” which in turn provides clues about their composition.
These clouds are very high, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface of the Red Planet.
“The atmosphere is very cold at this altitude, which indicates that these clouds are composed of carbon dioxide ice as opposed to icy water clouds, which are usually found at lower altitudes,” NASA said.
The blog post didn’t say how fast the clouds move, but typical wind speeds near the surface of Mars range from 4.5 mph to 22 mph (7 to 35 kph), which may be fast enough to provide wind power on the Red Planet.
Curiosity is located in the Gale Crater on the surface of Mars. The rover has made some fascinating observations of clouds since landing in 2012, including scenes from last year of iridescent clouds of Mars, known as “mother-of-pearl” or “mother of pearl” after their iridescent colors.
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