NASA’s Curiosity rover sees “sunbeams” on Mars for the first time

NASA’s Curiosity rover captured “sun rays” on Mars for the first time, the agency says.

The images were taken on Feb. 6, NASA said, and showed the phenomenon as the sun was setting on the planet. This is the first time, NASA said, that the sun’s rays, also known as twilight rays, have been observed so clearly.

NASA shared a glimpse of what the rover captured on them Twitter accounts. The photo shows a gray sky above a rocky black landscape, with red and green highlights.

The moment was captured as the rover conducted a twilight cloud survey, building on previous cloud observations. Previously recorded images of Martian clouds show that they are made of water ice and hover no more than 60 kilometers above the surface of Mars. The new images taken by Curiosity appear to show clouds at “higher altitudes, where it’s particularly cold,” NASA said, suggesting the clouds are made of carbon dioxide ice or dry ice.

Another photo, NASA said, shows a “feather-shaped iridescent cloud.” That image, taken just after sunset on Jan. 27, helps give scientists information about particle sizes in the clouds.

Both photos, NASA said, were captured as panoramas, “each stitched together from 28 images sent to Earth.” The images “have been edited to emphasize the highlights,” the agency said.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover captured this feather-shaped iridescent cloud just after sunset on Jan. 27, 2023, the mission's 3,724th Mars day, or sol.  / Credit: NASA

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this feather-shaped iridescent cloud just after sunset on Jan. 27, 2023, the mission’s 3,724th Mars day, or sol. / Credit: NASA

Curiosity’s previous cloud survey, conducted in 2021, used black-and-white navigation cameras to get a detailed look at the structure of moving clouds, but the more recent survey, which began in January, uses the rover’s color camera to see how cloud particles grow over time, NASA said. The current study ends in mid-March.

“Just like on Earth, clouds provide scientists with complex but crucial information for understanding weather. By watching where and when clouds form, scientists can learn more about the composition and temperatures of the Martian atmosphere and the winds within it.” said NASA.

Curiosity launched in 2011 and landed on Mars in August 2012. According to NASA, the rover’s primary mission is to determine whether Mars can support tiny life forms known as microbes. In the past, Curiosity has found evidence of past habitable environments on Mars, and it has found carbon, a “key ingredient of life” on the planet.

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