Mars, Partly Cloudy

Lower atmospheric clouds seen from Opportunity
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Using its left navigation camera, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity sought to capture some clouds on its 153rd sol on Mars (June 28, 2004).

Mars Global Surveyor
Kunowsky Crater MGS MOC Release No. MOC2-753, 10 June 2004
Image Credit: Mars Global Surveyor, Malin Space Systems

The presence of morning clouds in the area of Endurance Crater was established by spacecraft orbiting Mars. Mars has three kinds of clouds: dust clouds low in the atmosphere; water clouds near the surface up to heights of 20 kilometers (about 12 miles); and carbon dioxide clouds at very high altitudes.

Just as on Earth, clouds, especially water clouds, are good tracers of the weather. Based on orbital data, more clouds are expected during the martian winter. As this change occurs, the rover’s cameras and miniature thermal emission spectrometer will track other changes that occur as the clouds accumulate.

The rovers provide a unique opportunity to examine the lower portion of Mars’ atmosphere. The lower atmosphere is difficult to characterize from orbit, but it is critical because that is where the atmosphere interacts with the surface. Since the rovers landed, the science team has been using the rover’s miniature thermal emission spectrometer instrument to see the weather at this bottom layer.

At left, the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) image, acquired this image in March 2004, showing Kunowsky Crater ringed by seasonal frost.

Kunowsky is about 67 km (~42 mi) in diameter. Wavy clouds form to the east (right) of the crater in early spring as winds circulate from west to east.

One fascinating feature that these maps have revealed is seasonal changes on a global and local scale. While the surface rovers have primary missions to look for water, the orbiter views have provided pictures of how Mars changes as the north and south hemispheres move into summer and winter. Notable among these changes is the dramatic appearance of martian frost.

Related Web Pages

Spirit’s Sol images and slideshow
Opportunity image gallery and slideshow
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Mars Express
Born Bone Dry