Skip to main content

Curiosity captures shimmering, iridescent ‘mother of pearl’ clouds on Mars

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and color corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured these clouds just after sunset on March 19, 2021, the 3,063rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission. The image is made up of 21 individual images stitched together and color corrected so that the scene appears as it would to the human eye. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars has a super-thin atmosphere compared to Earth, with just 1% of its density. And it’s very dry there as well, with little or no liquid water on its surface. Both of these factors mean that clouds are a rarity in the martian sky, and they typically only form around the equator during the depths of the Martian winter.

But two years ago, the Curiosity rover noticed something interesting: There were clouds forming overhead from its location, earlier than expected. One Martian year later (the equivalent of two Earth years), Curiosity was ready to go cloud hunting once again, and it had captured some stunning and intriguing images of clouds in a usually cloudless sky.

Curiosity began snapping images of the clouds throughout this year, beginning in January. And researchers discovered that the early clouds they were seeing were different from typical clouds, as they are at a higher altitude. And they’re not made from water ice — rather, they seem to be made of frozen carbon dioxide.

One of the most stunning phenomena in the martian sky is “mother of pearl” clouds, which are iridescent and shimmer in all sorts of colors.

“If you see a cloud with a shimmery pastel set of colors in it, that’s because the cloud particles are all nearly identical in size,” said Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s usually happening just after the clouds have formed and have all grown at the same rate.”

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spotted these iridescent, or “mother of pearl,” clouds on March 5, 2021, the 3,048th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Seen here are five frames stitched together from a much wider panorama taken by the rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover spotted these iridescent, or “mother of pearl,” clouds on March 5, 2021, the 3,048th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Seen here are five frames stitched together from a much wider panorama taken by the rover’s Mast Camera, or Mastcam. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Although the effect is highlighted by Curiosity’s Mastcam instrument, this colorful display could even be seen with the naked eye from the Martian surface. “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.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
See the passing of a day on Mars with the Curiosity rover
Curiosity rover

While many of us are on vacation this week between Christmas and New Year, the Curiosity rover on Mars is getting back to work after taking time off last month. In November, NASA's Mars missions paused for two weeks during an event called the Mars solar conjunction, when the sun is directly between Earth and Mars.

That means that any communications signals passing between the two planets would have to pass close to the harsh solar environment, where they would likely be degraded. To avoid any risk of garbled communications sending dangerous signals to the rovers, NASA stopped sending commands to both its Curiosity and Perseverance rovers until the solar conjunction passed.

Read more
Perseverance joins the 1,000-sols club on Mars, gets congratulated by Curiosity
NASA's Perserverance Mars rover.

NASA's Perseverance rover has reached 1,000 Mars sols after arriving on the faraway planet in February 2021.

The rover, NASA’s most advanced to date, announced the achievement in a post on social media on Tuesday, adding: “My work is far from done.”

Read more
Mars Odyssey spacecraft pulls a sideways maneuver to capture the planet’s horizon
NASA Orbiter Snaps Stunning Views of Mars Horizon

A new image from a NASA orbiter shows an unusual view of Mars that captures the planet's horizon complete with clouds. It is similar to the kinds of views of Earth that astronauts get from the International Space Station, showing what Mars would look like if seen from a similar vantage point.

The image was taken by NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since 2001. In its over 20 years of operations, the orbiter made key discoveries, including some of the first detections of subsurface ice on the planet. It has also created a global map of the planet's surface using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument.

Read more