The CLOUD (Cosmics Leaving OUtdoor Droplets) experiment begins taking its first data today with a prototype detector in a particle beam at CERN, the world's largest laboratory for particle physics. The goal of the experiment is to investigate the possible influence of galactic cosmic rays on Earth's clouds and climate. This represents the first time a high energy physics accelerator has been used for atmospheric and climate science.
Studies suggest that cosmic rays may influence the amount of cloud cover through the formation of new aerosols (tiny particles suspended in the air that seed cloud droplets). Clouds exert a strong influence on the Earth's energy balance, and changes of only a few per cent have an important effect on the climate. The CLOUD prototype experiment aims to investigate the effect of cosmic rays on the formation of new aerosols.
Understanding the microphysics in controlled laboratory conditions is a key to unravelling the connection between cosmic rays and clouds. CLOUD will reproduce these interactions for the first time by sending a beam of particles – the "cosmic rays" - from CERN's Proton Synchrotron into a reaction chamber. The effect of the beam on aerosol production will be recorded and analysed.
The collaboration comprises an interdisciplinary team from 18 institutes and 9 countries in Europe, the United States and Russia. It brings together atmospheric physicists, solar physicists, and cosmic ray and particle physicists to address a key question in the understanding of clouds and climate change.
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