There's something deeply calming about watching clouds drift across an open sky. Fortunately for NASA's Curiosity rover, which just celebrated its fifth year on Mars, this pastime is not unique to Earth. New footage released on Wednesday by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reveals Curiosity's view of thin cloud cover floating high above the rover's adopted home in Gale Crater.
Curiosity snapped the above sequence, compiled from still images, using one of its navigation cameras (Navcams) during the early morning hours of July 17 (local Mars time). The shots were taken over four minutes, so the motion of the clouds appears accelerated.
Unlike Curiosity's Mastcam, the instrument responsible for the rover's colorful selfies and landscape panoramas, Navcams are used for wide angle black-and-white imagery that helps mission leads plot out optimal driving routes for Curiosity. Though the picture is grainy, the wide field is able to capture the rippled patterns of these Martian clouds in stereoscopic 3D.
Here's another sequence, this time with the Navcam angled toward the southern horizon from Curiosity's perspective.
These spectral wisps resemble the cirrus clouds that often form in Earth's skies, and they are likely formed of the same material—evaporating ice crystals. They decorate the Martian welkin when the red planet gets chillier near aphelion, which is the point at which it is farthest from the Sun.
According to JPL, these are the clearest images of Martian clouds that Curiosity has ever taken. Previous Mars surface missions have also had the opportunity to capture gorgeous glimpses of cloud cover, including this timelapse taken by NASA's Phoenix lander, which touched down in the Martian Arctic in 2008.
Perhaps one day, humans will be able to gaze up and marvel at these beautiful clouds from the surface of Mars. Until then, our trusty robots have us covered.
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