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Curiosity Rover Goes Cloud Watching On Mars

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Three drifting clouds above Gale Crater. The Mars Curiosity rover went skywatching with the InSight lander in May to help scientists measure altitude of Martian clouds. The 6-year-old robotic explorer is currently exploring the clay-bearing unit of Mount Sharp.   ( NASA/JPL-Caltech )

NASA's Curiosity took a brief pause from drilling rocks on the surface of Mars to observe the passing clouds above.

From May 7 to May 17, the rover took photographs of passing clouds using its black-and-white Navigational Cameras or NavCams. It is currently exploring the aptly named clay-bearing unit in the lower region of Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater.

Cloud-Watching On Mars

According to a press release from NASA, the clouds photographed by Curiosity were of the noctilucent variety — clouds that reflect the sunlight even after dusk. They are also "likely" water-ice clouds and they float pretty high up at about 19 miles above the ground.

The exercise will help scientists study the altitude of the clouds. The team behind Curiosity has been trying to coordinate cloud observations with InSight, which is located 373 miles (600 kilometers) away. The lander, which touched down on the Red Planet just last year, snapped its own photos of Martian clouds using the Instrument Context Camera or ICC.

While the rover usually takes photographs of rocks, this is not the first time that Curiosity sent back a view of the sky in Mars. In July 2017, it used its Navcam to capture a series of images of passing clouds in its location in the Gale Crater.

NASA said these were cirrus clouds found at 6,000 meters above the ground. Scientists stitched together the images to create a grainy short videos showing the movement of the Martian clouds.

In 2018, Curiosity also helped scientists on Earth monitor the massive dust storm that engulfed the Red Planet and took out the 15-year-old Opportunity. Using its Mast Camera or Mastcam, the rover took photos from the ground every day to show how thick the haze was becoming.

Because the 6-year-old rover has a nuclear-powered battery, it was unaffected by the global dust storm.

Climbing Mount Sharp

Curiosity landed on the Gale Crater in 2012. Since 2014, the rover has been slowly but steadily climbing Mount Sharp, a mound of layered material about 3 miles high in the middle of Gale Crater.

Scientists believe that the layers of Mount Sharp can provide a record of Mars' watery past. Based on observations made from orbit, each layer has different materials such as clay minerals near the bottom and sulfur and oxygen-bearing minerals right above. Curiosity will investigate how each layer of the mound is formed and paint a picture of the planet's lost history.

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