The blue clouds of the red planet

By Phil Plait | December 22, 2009 11:30 am

I post a lot of pictures here from Hubble, Spitzer, and other massively-funded large observatories. But it doesn’t take a huge, multi-billion-dollar project to create amazing astronomical images. Proof in point: Emil Kraaikamp is one of the more gifted astrophotographers I’ve seen. He has a 25 cm (10″) telescope that he uses to create truly jaw-dropping views of the sky.

Want proof? Check this image out: it’s an animation he made of Mars, using observations he made in early December and showing the planet’s rotation over the course of more than two hours about 45 minutes (a day on Mars is a half hour longer than Earth’s). You can clearly see both the south and north polar ice caps together with several dark surface features on the planet, which in itself is lovely and very cool.

But what blew me away is something you may not notice immediately in the picture. Take a look on the left side of the animation. See those three aligned blue spots, with the one blue spot to the lower right? Those are called orographic clouds, formed when moist air is lifted up over an obstacle; the air cools and the moisture condenses, forming clouds. What kind of obstacle on the Martian surface could do that?

olympusmonsVolcanoes. Yes, volcanoes: in the animation, you can actually see clouds that have formed as the Martian atmosphere moves up the banks of the enormous volcanoes on the Tharsis shield, a massive uplift feature on Mars. The fourth cloud to the lower right is actually marking the spot of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system. The image inset here is from NASA, showing Olympus Mons up close; but you don’t need to go to Mars to see it.

After all, it can be captured with a ten inch telescope.

Holy — and for once I mean this literally, folks — Haleakala.

On his page, Emil Kraaikamp showed how he took three images using red, green, and blue filters to create the stills that were then used for the animation:


I love this, because it shows how using filters tells you a lot about what you’re seeing. Note that in the red Mars is fairly smooth, with some dark spots. The red dust covers the planet, so it smooths out features (though the ice caps are obvious). In the green you’re just starting to see a hint of clouds, and then in the blue the clouds pop right out.

Combine them, and you have Mars. Another world, seen through what most people would consider a small telescope here on Earth.

You absolutely must peruse his other planet images; the animations of Jupiter are fantastic, and the detail he was able to capture on Venus — normally a featureless white blur — is nothing short of spectacular!

I’ll add that his setup is quite sophisticated, and he spent many hours processing these images, so it’s not like you can buy an off-the-shelf ‘scope and expect to do this on your first night. But it does show what someone dedicated to the art and science of astronomy can do when they set their mind and heart to it. Amazing.

Credits: Images from Emil Kraaikamp used with permission. Olympus Mons image: NASA.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (29)

  1. I guess you wanted to say ‘orographic clouds’ instead of ‘orthographic’‚Ķ ūüėČ

    Amazing animation. I have a friend with a 10 inch telescope who will love this (and almost die in envy).


  2. andy

    This ex-classicist agrees that it should be “orographic” not “orthographic”.

  3. Is the animation running backwards, or is the image inverted, with North at the bottom?

  4. Absolutely mind-blowing… I love the detail this guy has been able to capture.

    Also, I think I’ve worked out your secret to blogging success, Phil: Post an article highlighting the Crazy that exists on this planet (i.e. Jessica Simpson making sweet ear love to a burning candle) and then post an article about the cutting edge of human ingenuity (i.e. this article). What do you get? An instant love for astronomy and a chuckle on the side.


  5. Okay, that is just WAY COOL! Thanks! :) <3

  6. Dagnappit, stoopid spell checker. I fixed it, and added a link to the definition, too. Thanks folks!

  7. For some reason imagers of the planets have decided on a convention of having North at the bottom and rotations going from right to left.

    I just wanted to point out to Phil that Even with relatively cheap and modest equipment one can get some really good images. I have gotten some pretty decent pictures of the planets using a 6″ telescope I bought for ~$200, a $50 webcam, and a couple of barlow lenses ~$30 each. They don’t reach the quality of images that Emil has produced, but I am quite happy with them :)

    BTW: the quality of images most of the time is actually limited by the atmosphere and how steady it is.

    Here are a couple of animations I have gotten from my 6″ scope:

    Mars –
    Jupiter –

  8. For some reason imagers of the planets have decided on a convention of having North at the bottom and rotations going from right to left.

    My guess is because that’s how it would appear in most telescopes. Though it does make animations just look “wrong”.

  9. Heh — love the backdoor-to-science you used in terms of discerning information from tools like filters. He even has a link to a guide covering his astrophotography process (though the only version he has available is in Dutch and won’t work for me at the moment). I suppose it wouldn’t be that hard to find techniques elsewhere though; I’m totally ignorant to the specific processes, which is kind of exciting all in itself. Has anyone else notably tried playing with various techniques?

  10. @8. Ken B:

    My guess is that “how it would appear in most telescopes” depends on what your latitude is and what direction you’re facing.

  11. I look at these stunningly beautiful images, and I can only think, “We must go there.”

  12. Merijn

    Holy something indeed!
    I wasn’t even aware that Mars had clouds like this, I thank may fellow Dutchman for that! One learns every day.

  13. Peter

    Wow. Surprising that it is possible to take such breathtaking pictures from the Netherlands in the first place. Firstly, where I live, the West of the Netherlands, there’s so much artificial light that you can only make out only the brightest of stars with the unaided eye. Secondly, years, years, back when I dreamed of building a telescope myself, I read that it didn’t make sense to have a mirror larger than 10cm or so her , because of the atmospheric conditions here.

    Well, Emil seems to take his images from a far less populated area of the Netherlands. A brilliant job he does there. Stunning.

  14. So cool you posted this Phil, thanks!

    @9. The Dutch PDF should be avaiable again, I fixed the link. There were plans to write an english version once, but it just takes too much of my time – which I’d rather spend on non-writing stuff. On my site you can see an even longer animation of the same area just a day later. The processing isn’t as smooth as in this image, and the seeing was not as steady, but the newer animation contains about 22 frames, instead of ‘only’ 6, and shows Mars rotating for a longer amount of time.

    Phil, the rotation you posted is only about 45 minutes in length, not ‘more than 2 hours’ as you mentioned (the bigger animation a day later is about 2 hours and 45 minutes).

    But again, very cool you posted this!

  15. And he has His Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster on his website!

  16. Writser

    in Holland, we call him the Baron of Astronomy

  17. Yeebok

    Very nice pics, Emil would be pretty pleased with his results – I’d be happy with something 1/2 as good!

  18. TR

    This isn’t exactly the forum for this question, but I thought I’d take a stab. Can anyone explain the long, linear feature on the Moon’s surface in this image:

    I’m referring to the trench-like valley in the center of the image, extending diagonally through what appears to be the an ejecta field from an enormous impact site.

    It looks like it might have been caused by tectonic activity, but it seems too small-scale and recent for that. It also occurred to me that it might be a crack caused by the very impact that ejected the debris itself, but then I would have expected to see more than one , and it doesn’t appear to be quite radial to the center of the impact site (though my perspective might be off). The only other possibilities that come to mind involve low-flying debris gouging a trench through the ejecta field – but that seems even more far-fetched.

    Any ideas?

  19. StevoR

    Superluminous imaging & animation- that is beyond mere brilliance! Thanks! ūüėÄ

  20. MadScientist

    Very nicely done – and he made use of cheap cameras too. Hmm … to capture all 3 images at the same time you can tear the beam mixer cube out of a suitable digital projector and put one webcam on each side – the cube is even conveniently coated with the RGB filters. :) If anyone wants such cubes, look for people who service digital projectors – the cube is part of the “optical block” which is often torn out and replaced although the cube is usually still in excellent condition (it is the tiny LCD screens attached to the cube which deteriorate badly).

  21. Gerry

    Makes you wonder why the universities and observatories with 20-36″ scopes haven’t done better…..

  22. Chip

    Thanks for sharing, Phil. I’m old enough to remember college astronomy textbooks with “professional” photos that were no where near as good. Quite amazing what can be done with digital processing….and a lot of skill and patience.

  23. Steve Dutch

    The reason the images are inverted is that astronomical telescopes invert images (it’s a waste of photons to add an inverter) and telescopic observers are used to seeing them that way. I recall seeing the Moon from the Southern Hemisphere and being astonished that it was “right side up” – I mean, upside down, the way I’m used to it appearing in a telescope. And if you add an elbow for more comfortable eyepiece position, right and left get reversed as well. For photography it’s no big deal since you can always flip the images to correct orientation.

  24. Jon Hanford

    @ 18 TR,

    This is the Alpine Valley (Vallis Alpes), most likely related to the collapse of lava tubes. Here’s a closeup:

  25. TR

    Interesting… I guess I’ll have to bone up on my lunar geology (lunology?).

    Thanks, John.

  26. Mark Hansen

    BA, were there any reports of meteorite activity near Grover’s Mill, NJ associated with these clouds?

    TR, I think the word you’re after is selenology.

  27. 26. Mark Hansen Says:

    BA, were there any reports of meteorite activity near Grover’s Mill, NJ associated with these clouds?

    Sorry, but the information gathered by the Banzai Institute has been classified as vital to National Security….



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