Clouds Sailing Overhead on Mars, Unenhanced

Wispy clouds float across the Martian sky in this accelerated sequence of early-morning images taken on July 17, 2017, by the Navcam on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.
August 9, 2017
CreditNASA/JPL-Caltech/York University
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Wispy clouds float across the Martian sky in this accelerated sequence of 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. This sequence uses raw images, which include a bright ring around the center of the frame that is an artifact of sunlight striking the camera lens even though the Sun is not in the shot. A processed version removing that artifact and emphasizing changes between images is also available.

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.