Story at a glance

  • NASA sent the Curiosity rover to Mars in 2011 as part of its exploration program.
  • The rover, which is still active today, took photographs of clouds just after sunset in March this year, earlier than such clouds were expected in past years.
  • The clouds are at higher altitudes than usual and are likely made of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice.

Just after sunset on Mars, “noctilucent” clouds grow brighter as they fill with crystals, shimmering as the sky darkens behind them in a remarkable display caught by NASA cameras. 

While NASA’s Perseverance rover has been snagging the attention of late, the Curiosity rover has remained on the red planet since it arrived in 2012. After scientists noticed two years ago (or one Martian year) that clouds were forming above the rover earlier than expected, they prepared to start documenting these clouds when they appeared in late January. The photographs, captured on March 19, show clouds at a much higher altitude than the usual clouds, which are about 37 miles in the sky, meaning they are likely made of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice. 


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“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, Colo., in a release. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate.”

On Earth, Tasmania’s Bureau of Meteorology compared the image to one seen in the Australian state’s capital city of Hobart. 


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The composite image is made up of 21 individual images, including color images from the rover’s Mast Camera, color-corrected to look as it would to the human eye. The iridescent, "mother of pearl" clouds would be visible, although faint, with the naked eye on the red planet, according to Lemmon. 

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


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Published on Jun 07, 2021