Missions to Mars, especially recent ones, have done a spectacular job at making us feel like the Red Planet is a real place that we can walk on, that some of us might even one day visit. While we have incredible photos and 360° panoramas galore, it’s often the littlest things that make it so familiar yet alien.
The latest is this great GIF of wispy clouds passing overhead on Mars. The images were taken by NASA’s Curiosity and stitched together by Professor Paul Byrne, an associate professor of planetary science at North Carolina State.
The eight images were taken by the industrious rover's right navigation camera over a period of 5 minutes on March 19. Apart from the clouds passing overhead, we see in the foreground a layered sediment cliff that the Curiosity science team have called "Mont Mercou".
The pancake-like structure is about 7 meters (23 feet) tall and is part of a hilly region at the base of Mount Sharp, the geological feature that Curiosity has been exploring for the last several years. The various sediment layers that make up Mont Mercou are compressed and cemented deposits that have then been eroded over time. It is an incredible record of the Red Planet's history.
The clouds in the images are made of water ice and are probably very thin compared to what we see on our planet. That doesn't mean that Mars can't make big clouds. One of the Red Planet's tallest volcanoes, Arsia Mons, creates a cloud that is 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) in length and 150 kilometers (93 miles) across every morning during the planet's southern spring. The formation mechanism has only recently been understood.