• Tue. Jun 15th, 2021

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has managed to capture images of “shining” clouds over Mars


May 30, 2021

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has managed to capture images of “shining” clouds over Mars.

Key points:

  • NASA first noticed clouds appearing earlier than expected in 2020 and prepared to photograph them this year
  • The “early clouds” are at a higher altitude than usual and are likely composed of frozen carbon dioxide
  • A navigation error sent NASA’s Mars helicopter on a wild, lurching ride this week

Taken just after sunset in March, the image was composed of 21 photos using colour correction so the view could be seen as the human eye would.

NASA scientists first noticed clouds appearing earlier in the year than expected in 2020, and were prepared to capture the clouds when they first started appearing in late January 2021.

The clouds have ice crystals which reflect the light of the setting sun.

“If you see a cloud with a shimmery pastel set of colours in it, that’s because the cloud particles are all nearly identical in size,” Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in the US, said.

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

Clouds on Mars are usually at an altitude no higher than 60 kilometres. However, NASA reported these “early clouds” were at higher altitudes where it was very cold, indicating they were “likely made of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice”.

According to NASA, cloudy days are rare in the thin, dry atmosphere of Mars.


Clouds drift over Mount Sharp on Mars, in a scene stitched together from six individual images.(Supplied: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS) 

“I always marvel at the colours that show up: reds and greens and blues and purples,” Dr Lemmon said.

NASA said its science team was continuing to study the cloud formations to learn more about the Red Planet.


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spotted these iridescent, or “mother of pearl,” clouds on March 5.(Supplied: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Navigation error sends helicopter on wild ride

A navigation timing error, meanwhile, has sent NASA’s little Mars helicopter on a wild, lurching ride — its first major problem since it took to the Martian skies last month.

The experimental helicopter, named Ingenuity, managed to land safely, officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported.


The surface of Mars is shown from a height of 10 metres, captured by the Ingenuity Mars helicopter during its sixth flight.(AP: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The trouble cropped up about a minute into the helicopter’s sixth test flight last Saturday at an altitude of 10 metres.

One of the numerous pictures taken by an onboard camera did not register in the navigation system, throwing the entire timing sequence off and confusing the craft about its location.

Ingenuity began tilting back and forth as much as 20 degrees and suffered power consumption spikes, according to Havard Grip, the helicopter’s chief pilot.

A built-in system to provide extra margin for stability “came to the rescue”, he wrote in an online status update. The helicopter landed within five metres of its intended touchdown site.

Ingenuity became the first aircraft to make a powered flight on another planet in April, two months after landing on Mars with NASA’s rover Perseverance.

The 1.8-kilogram helicopter aced its first five flights, each of which was more challenging than the last. NASA was so impressed by the $US85 million ($110 million) tech demo that it extended its mission by at least a month.

Saturday’s troubled flight was the first for this bonus period. Engineers have spent the past several days addressing the problem.

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A NASA spacecraft carrying asteroid rubble begins its long journey home.

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