NASA Balloon Mission Captures Mystifying Electric Blue Clouds

Posted: Sep 23 2018, 2:55am CDT | by , Updated: Sep 23 2018, 2:58am CDT, in Latest Science News


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NASA Balloon Mission Captures Mystifying Electric Blue Clouds
Credit: NASA/PMC Turbo/Joy Ng

Glowing noctilucent clouds are the highest clouds in Earth's atmosphere.

In the summertime at high latitudes of both Northern and Southern Hemispheres, thin, glowing blue clouds are visible just after the sunset. These clouds, called noctilucent clouds or polar mesospheric clouds (PMCs), are the highest clouds in Earth’s atmosphere that form some 50 miles above the surface in mesosphere.

NASA has recently launched a balloon mission to study these unusual clouds in our atmosphere. The balloon mission, PMC Turbo, floated through the skies for many days since its launch in July 8 and was able to capture 6 million high-resolution images of PMCs. The mission generated about 120 terabytes of data and researches believe that the data will help them better understand the structure of mesosphere and overall turbulence in the atmosphere.

“From what we’ve seen so far, we expect to have a really spectacular dataset from this mission,” said Dave Fritts, principal investigator of the PMC Turbo mission. “Our cameras were likely able to capture some really interesting events and we hope we will provide new insights into these complex dynamics.”

The first noctilucent clouds were observed in 1885 in the wake of Krakatoa volcano eruption in Indonesia. Sightings of these clouds have become more frequent ever since. But little is known about how noctilucent clouds form far northern or southern latitudes.

PMCs can only form at mid to high latitudes because at these heights temperatures are cold enough to freeze water vapors into clouds of icy crystals. The crystal clouds glow a bright, shocking blue when they reflect sunlight. However, the factors that contribute to these shining wispy clouds were largely unknown until now. PMC Turbo mission data reveal that these clouds are affected by what's known as atmospheric gravity waves. As the name suggests, atmospheric gravity waves develop when buoyancy pushes air up and gravity pulls it back down. These waves play a major role in transferring energy from the lower atmosphere to the mesosphere.

“This is the first time we've been able to visualize the flow of energy from larger gravity waves to smaller flow instabilities and turbulence in the upper atmosphere,” said Fritts. “At these altitudes you can literally see the gravity waves breaking – like ocean waves on the beach – and cascading to turbulence."

NASA’s PMC Turbo mission is equipped with seven specially designed high-resolution cameras to image polar mesospheric clouds and measure gravity wave breakdown and turbulence. The mission is providing scientists with information about the precise measurements of the altitudes of the PMCs as well as the temperature fluctuations of the gravity waves above and below them.

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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