Mysterious Flashes Of Light Spotted On Earth From Space

Posted: May 17 2017, 12:06am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
Mysterious Flashes of Light Spotted on Earth from Space
Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA's EPIC camera captures flashes of lights millions of miles above from space

From a million miles away, a satellite has spotted strange flashes of light in Earth’s atmosphere. And these flashes are not eyewash. Hundreds of these bright streaks have been captured over the span of a year. The discovery was made by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera installed on NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory or DSCOVR. The satellite was launched in 2015.

Initially, flashes were thought to be reflected off the oceans by the sunlight but later researchers found that these lights were also seen in the areas which constitute land.

“We found quite a few very bright flashes over land as well. When I first saw it I thought maybe there was some water there, or a lake the sun reflects off of. But the glint is pretty big, so it wasn’t that.” Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR deputy project scientist who first noticed strange flashes occasionally appearing over oceans as he looked through that day’s EPIC images said.

But DSCOVR is not the first satellite to see those bright lights. Similar reflections from the Earth were also noticed back in 1993 when astronomer Carl Sagan was observing images taken by the Galileo spacecraft. Launched in 1989, Galileo captured these mysterious flashes of light in Earth’s atmosphere while en route to Jupiter and its moons but researchers could not explain them at that time.

"Large expanses of blue ocean and apparent coastlines are present, and close examination of the images shows a region of (mirror-like) reflection in ocean but not on land," Sagan and his colleagues wrote in their study, published in Nature in 1993.

Now, NASA scientists believe they have finally found an explanation for this phenomenon. These flashes are caused by the sunlight reflecting off ice crystals high in the atmosphere.

Tiny ice particles reflect sunlight, particularly when viewed from space. The satellite picked up the reflected light from certain spots on Earth where the angle between the sun and Earth is the same as the angle between the spacecraft and Earth. This means that the flashes came from some other source, not simply from water on the ground.

“The source of the flashes is definitely not on the ground. It’s definitely ice, and most likely solar reflection off of horizontally oriented particles.” Marshak said.

Detecting flashes like this from DSCOVR could provide more insight into how light reflects off Earth’s atmosphere and how heat is reaching and leaving Earth. In the future, researchers are also hoping to identify these ice crystals in the atmosphere of other exoplanets, so that they can determine their habitability.

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