NASA’s Curiosity Rover Captures Rare Shining Clouds on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity rover has captured images of clouds on Mars— as described in its blog post: “wispy puffs filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting sun, some of them shimmering with color.”

The shimmering appearance of icy white clouds in the Martian atmosphere surprised NASA scientists, appearing in their delicate formations in exquisite shapes.

According to NASA clouds are rare in the thin atmosphere of Mars, but usually form at its equator during its coldest time of year. Scientists noticed that last year — two years ago in Earth time— there were clouds beginning to form earlier than expected, so this year they were ready.

The images are not only stunning, they’ve provided new insights to the Curiosity team at NASA. The early clouds are at higher altitudes than most Martian clouds— which typically hover about 37 miles above the planet’s surface and are made up of water ice. 

clouds drifting over Mount Sharp on Mars, as viewed by NASA’s Curiosity rover on March 19, 2021.

different composition

Scientists now think these clouds are made of frozen carbon dioxide — dry ice, rather than water ice. That conclusion came after researchers analyzed Curiosity’s images to see how the setting sun’s light reflected off the ice crystals inside the clouds — which gives a hint at how high in the sky the clouds were. 

The researchers determined that these early-arrival clouds were drifting at higher altitudes than normal Martian clouds. It’s much colder at high altitudes, and water ice is unlikely there.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover took these images of clouds just after sunset on March 31, 2021.

Amazing scenes

Curiosity provided both black and white and color images, which show the wavy details of the clouds more clearly, while the color images from the rover’s mast camera are stitched together from several truly stunning images.

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spotted these iridescent, or “mother of pearl,” clouds on March 5th, the 3,048th Martian day, or sol, of its mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


Curiosity also captured images of iridescent “mother of pearl” clouds, with pastel colors throughout. Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado said in NASA’s post that those colors come from cloud particles nearly identical in size. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate,” he explained.

These clouds are among the more colorful things on the Red Planet, he added. If you were skygazing next to Curiosity, you could see the colors with the naked eye, although they’d be faint.

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