sciencehabit writes from a report via Science Magazine: NASA’s Curiosity rover has shot more than 500 movies of the clouds above Mars, including the first ground-based view of martian clouds shaped by gravity waves, researchers reported this week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. The shots are the best record made so far of a mysterious recurring belt of equatorial clouds known to influence the martian climate. Understanding these clouds will help inform estimates of ground ice depth and perhaps recurring slope lineae, potential flows of salty water on the surface, says John Moores, a planetary scientist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who led the study with his graduate student, Jake Kloos. “If we wish to understand the water story of Mars’s past,” Moores says, “we first need to [separate out] contributions from the present-day water cycle.” Using Curiosity’s navigation camera, Moores and Kloos recorded eight-frame movies of this wispy cloud belt for two martian years. They’ve used two angles to capture the clouds: one pointed directly up, to see wind direction and speed, and another that keeps the rover’s horizon in the frame, allowing a view into the clouds’ depth. Given the limited water vapor, solar energy, and atmosphere, the martian clouds lack the variety of shapes seen on Earth. But during one day of cloud gazing — Curiosity’s 1302th martian day, to be precise — the team got lucky and saw something unusual. That day, when Curiosity looked to the horizon, it saw a sequence of straight, parallel rows of clouds flowing in the same direction: the first ground-based view of a gravity wave cloud. Similar to the waves that follow a pebble tossed into a pond, gravity waves are created when some unknown feature of the martian landscape causes a ripple in the atmosphere that is then seen in clouds. Such waves are common at the edge of the martian ice caps, but thought to be less frequent over its equator.
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