Why are Martian sunsets blue?

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The sunset pictured here may look strange to you and me, but on Mars it's a rather common sight. A bluish hue radiates outward from the setting Sun, fading gradually before taking on a pinkish tinge.

Strangely enough, that's more or less the exact opposite of what you'd expect to see during sunsets here on Earth, which tend to fade from warm, ruddy colors into the bluish purples typical of a late afternoon sky. So why, exactly, are Martian sunsets blue? For that matter, why are they basically inverted versions of what we find here on Earth?

Over on NPR, Ezra Block and Robert Krulwich explain that the answer boils down to airborne dust — more specifically the size of that dust, and the wavelengths of light those dust particles let through.


Martian dust is smaller and more plentiful than the particles you find floating around here on Earth, and it happens to be just the right size that it absorbs blue wavelengths while scattering red ones across the sky. These red wavelengths are what give much of the Martian firmament that pinkish hue. Look directly toward the setting sun, however, and you'll see blue. That's because the beams of light coming from this direction have lost their red waves entirely (they've been filtered out, and scattered by the dust, remember?), so the only wavelengths of light that make it through are those that give the light its blue appearance.


On Earth, our larger atmospheric particles scatter blue wavelenghts instead of red, so the opposite effect is observed. What's interesting is that astronomers think they can use spectral properties like these to gather important details about planets throughout our galaxy — details that could even one day lead us to other habitable planets. [NPR | Nano Patents and Innovations]

Martian Sunset via NASA/JPL; Earth sunset by NeilsPhotography