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Watch Martian Clouds Scoot, Thanks to NASA’s Curiosity

Clouds Sailing Overhead on Mars, Enhanced

Wispy clouds float across the Martian sky in this accelerated sequence of enhanced images from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover.

The rover’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) took these eight images over a span of four minutes early in the morning of the mission’s 1,758th Martian day, or sol (July 17, 2017), aiming nearly straight overhead. They have been processed by first making a “flat field’ adjustment for known differences in sensitivity among pixels and correcting for camera artifacts due to light reflecting within the camera, and then generating an “average” of all the frames and subtracting that average from each frame. This subtraction results in emphasizing any changes due to movement or lighting. The clouds are also visible, though fainter, in a raw image sequence from these same observations. On the same Martian morning, Curiosity also observed clouds near the southern horizon.

The clouds resemble Earth’s cirrus clouds, which are ice crystals at high altitudes. These Martian clouds are likely composed of crystals of water ice that condense onto dust grains in the cold Martian atmosphere. Cirrus wisps appear as ice crystals fall and evaporate in patterns known as “fall streaks” or “mare’s tails.” Such patterns have been seen before at high latitudes on Mars, for instance by the Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008, and seasonally nearer the equator, for instance by the Opportunity rover. However, Curiosity has not previously observed such clouds so clearly visible from the rover’s study area about five degrees south of the equator.

The Hubble Space Telescope and spacecraft orbiting Mars have observed a band of clouds to appear near the Martian equator around the time of the Martian year when the planet is farthest from the Sun. With a more elliptical orbit than Earth’s, Mars experiences more annual variation than Earth in its distance from the Sun. The most distant point in an orbit around the Sun is called the aphelion. The near-equatorial Martian cloud pattern observed at that time of year is called the “aphelion cloud belt.” These new images from Curiosity were taken about two months before aphelion, but the morning clouds observed may be an early stage of the aphelion cloud belt.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed and built the project’s Curiosity rover and the rover’s Navcam.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/York University

 

Watch Martian Clouds Scoot, Thanks to NASA’s Curiosity

Wispy, early-season clouds resembling Earth’s ice-crystal cirrus clouds move across the Martian sky in some new image sequences from NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover.

These clouds are the most clearly visible so far from Curiosity, which landed five years ago this month about five degrees south of Mars’ equator. Clouds moving in the Martian sky have been observed previously by Curiosity and other missions on the surface of Mars, including NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander in the Martian arctic nine years ago.

Researchers used Curiosity’s Navigation Camera (Navcam) to take two sets of eight images of the sky on an early Martian morning last month. For one set, the camera pointed nearly straight up. For the other, it pointed just above the southern horizon. Cloud movement was recorded in both and was made easier to see by image enhancement. A midday look at the sky with the same camera the same day showed no clouds.

Mars’ elliptical orbit makes that planet’s distance from the Sun vary more than Earth’s does. In previous Martian years, a belt of clouds has appeared near the equator around the time Mars was at its farthest from the Sun. The new images of clouds were taken about two months before that farthest point in the orbit, relatively early in the season for the appearance of this cloud belt.

“It is likely that the clouds are composed of crystals of water ice that condense out onto dust grains where it is cold in the atmosphere,” said Curiosity science-team member John Moores of York University, Toronto, Canada. “The wisps are created as those crystals fall and evaporate in patterns known as ‘fall streaks’ or ‘mare’s tails.’ While the rover does not have a way to ascertain the altitude of these clouds, on Earth such clouds form at high altitude.”

York’s Charissa Campbell produced the enhanced-image sequences by generating an “average” of all the frames in each sequence, then subtracting that average from each frame, emphasizing any frame-to-frame changes. The moving clouds are also visible, though fainter, in a sequence of raw images.

The Curiosity mission has been investigating the environmental conditions of ancient and modern Mars since the rover landed on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT and Universal Time).

source: NASA – Jet Propulsion Laboratory – California Institute of Technology

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