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Making Martian clouds on Earth

Cloud-chamber experiments show that clouds on Mars form in much more humid conditions than clouds on Earth

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At first glance, Mars' clouds might easily be mistaken for those on Earth. Images of the Martian sky, taken by NASA's Opportunity rover, depict gauzy, high-altitude wisps, similar to our cirrus clouds. Given what scientists know about the Red Planet's atmosphere, these clouds likely consist of either carbon dioxide or water-based ice crystals. But it's difficult to know the precise conditions that give rise to such clouds without sampling directly from a Martian cloud.

Researchers at MIT have now done the next-best thing: they've recreated Mars-like conditions within a three-story-tall cloud chamber in Germany, adjusting the chamber's temperature and relative humidity to match conditions on Mars — essentially forming Martian clouds on Earth.

While the researchers were able to create clouds at the frigid temperatures typically found on Mars, they discovered that cloud formation in such conditions required adjusting the chamber's relative humidity to 190 percent — far greater than cloud formation requires on Earth. The finding should help improve conventional models of the Martian atmosphere, many of which assume that Martian clouds require humidity levels similar to those found on Earth.

"A lot of atmospheric models for Mars are very simple," says Dan Cziczo, the Victor P. Starr Associate Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at MIT. "They have to make...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.