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NASA, Mars
Courtesy of NASA

NASA captures a photograph of rare, shimmering clouds on Mars

The iridescent clouds can typically be seen on the planet’s equator during the time Mars is farthest from the sun

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has captured images of the rare, iridescent clouds that exist on Mars.

According to a NASA press release, the clouds are rare on the Red Planet owing to its dry, thin atmosphere. Clouds can typically be seen on the planet’s equator during the time Mars is farthest from the sun.

Scientists studying the clouds on the martian planet noticed them forming over NASA’s Curiosity Rover around two Earth years ago (equal to one full year on Mars), prompting them to document these ‘early’ clouds from the moment they began to appear in late January.

“What resulted are images of wispy puffs filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting sun, some of them shimmering with colour,” the lab wrote.

Most clouds on Mars hover no more than about 37 miles (60 kilometers) in the sky and are made of frozen water. But these shimmering clouds photographed by the Curiosity Rover sit at a higher altitude, where the air is much colder. This likely means that the higher clouds are made from frozen carbon dioxide.

The Curiosity’s panoramic Mast Camera, or Mastcam, captured the clouds just after sunset, showing ice crystals that were able to catch the fading light and appeared to shine against the sky.

“These twilight clouds, also known as “noctilucent” (Latin for “night shining”) clouds, grow brighter as they fill with crystals, then darken after the Sun’s position in the sky drops below their altitude,” the lab said. “This is just one useful clue scientists use to determine how high they are.”

Other clouds, called “mother of pearl” clouds, appear iridescent or pastel in color because of uniform cloud particles. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate,” said Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The depth of colours are difficult to see with the naked eye but are able to be picked up by the rover’s high-tech cameras.

“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.”

Elsewhere, NASA has also published a page on its site where you can input a month and a date and it serves you a spacey image captured on that day – enjoy!