It would be nice to one day stand under a cloud on Mars with a loved one and romantically ask what it looks like to them, only to see their eyes bulging out like Schwarzenegger in Total Recall because they forget their helmet.
But astronomers have been doing that very thing (from far away, obviously), and they noticed what the clouds actually look like: Earth clouds. Not a dinosaur or anything.
Though the atmospheres are radically different and it’s somewhat hard to breath on Mars, both planets appear to have pretty similar cloud formations. A study by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter examined dust storms on Mars, and found that clouds are formed in similar ways to clouds in Earth’s tropical regions.
“When thinking of a Mars-like atmosphere on Earth, one might easily think of a dry desert or polar region,” ESA’s Mars Express project scientist Colin Wilson said in a statement.
“It is quite unexpected then, that through tracking the chaotic movement of dust storms, that parallels can be drawn with the processes that occur in Earth’s moist, hot, and decidedly very un-Mars-like tropical regions.”
In case you’re planning a trip, the two planets are vastly different. Mars is cold and dry and composed mostly of carbon dioxide, whereas here on Earth we’re fortunate to have nitrogen and oxygen. And the atmospheric densities (if you care about that sort of thing when travelling), are nothing alike, with Mars’ clocking in at less than one fiftieth of Earth’s atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of 35 km above Earth’s surface, according to the ESA.
So scientists were a bit surprised at the cloud similarities. Using orbiting cameras onboard the Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they observed dust storms that occurred near the Martian north pole. Spiral shapes are visible and their origin resembles extratropical cyclones on Earth. There are also similar cloud cells arranged like grains or pebbles.
One can imagine an astronomer looking at the images and joking, “You know what the Mars clouds look like? Rain!” And getting absolute silence.
In any case, such findings are about more than noticing that clouds look alike. Understanding how these dust storms on Mars form will help with future solar-powered missions to the red planet, as the storms can block light for solar cells.
This will make it easier for people to one day stand under the clouds and wonder what they look like. At the moment, we’ll just have to leave that experience to rover couples.