Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Puzzling Property Of Night-shining Clouds At Edge Of Space Explained

Date:
September 26, 2008
Source:
California Institute of Technology
Summary:
An explanation for a strange property of noctilucent clouds -- thin, wispy clouds hovering at the edge of space at 85 km altitude -- has been proposed by an experimental plasma physicist, possibly laying to rest a decades-long mystery.

What is a Noctilucent Cloud? -- Polar mesospheric clouds, as they are known to those who study them from satellite observations, are also often called "noctilucent," or night shining, clouds as seen by ground-based observers. Because of their high altitude, near the edge of space, noctilucent clouds shine at night when the Sun's rays hit them from below while the lower atmosphere is bathed in darkness.
Credit: NASA

An explanation for a strange property of noctilucent clouds--thin, wispy clouds hovering at the edge of space at 85 km altitude--has been proposed by an experimental plasma physicist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), possibly laying to rest a decades-long mystery.

Noctilucent clouds, also known as night-shining clouds, were first described in 1885, two years after the massive eruption of Krakatoa, a volcanic island in Indonesia, sent up a plume of ash and debris up to 80 km into Earth's atmosphere. The eruption affected global climate and weather for years and may have produced the first noctilucent clouds.

The effects of Krakatoa eventually faded, but the unusual electric blue clouds remain, nestled into a thin layer of Earth's mesosphere, the upper atmosphere region where pressure is 10,000 times less than at sea level. The clouds, which are visible during the deep twilight, are most often observed during the summer months at latitudes from 50 to 70 degrees north and south--although in recent years they have been seen as far south as Utah and Colorado. Noctilucent clouds are a summertime phenomenon because, curiously, the atmosphere at 85 km altitude is coldest in summer, promoting the formation of the ice grains that make up the clouds.

"The incidence of noctilucent clouds seems to be increasing, perhaps because of global warming," says Paul M. Bellan, a professor of applied physics at Caltech.

Twenty-five years ago, researchers at Poker Flat, Alaska, discovered that the clouds were highly reflective to radar. This unusual property has long puzzled scientists. Bellan, reporting in the August issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, now has an explanation: the ice grains in noctilucent clouds are coated with a thin film of metal, made of sodium and iron. The metal film causes radar waves to reflect off ripples in the cloud in a manner analogous to how X-rays reflect from a crystal lattice.

Sodium and iron atoms collect in the upper atmosphere after being blasted off incoming micrometeors. These metal atoms settle into a thin layer of vapor that sits just above the altitude at which noctilucent clouds occur. Astronomers recently have been using the sodium layer to create laser-illuminated artificial guide stars for adaptive optics telescopes that remove the distorting affects of atmospheric turbulence to produce clearer celestial images.

Measurements of the density of sodium and iron atomic vapor layers show that the metal vapor is depleted by over 80 percent when noctilucent clouds are present. "Noctilucent clouds have been shown to act very much like a flycatcher for sodium and iron atoms," Bellan says. Indeed, in laboratory experiments, other researchers have found that at the frigid temperatures (-123 degrees Celsius) within noctilucent clouds, atoms in sodium vapor quickly become deposited on the surface of ice to form a metallic film.

"If you have metal-coated ice grains in noctilucent clouds, the radar reflectivity can become enormous" he says. "This reflectivity is not the sum of reflections from individual ice grains, which would not produce a very large reflection. Instead, what happens is that ripples in the cloud of metal-coated ice grains reflect in unison and reinforce each other, somewhat like an army marching in step across a bridge causes the bridge to vibrate."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by California Institute of Technology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

California Institute of Technology. "Puzzling Property Of Night-shining Clouds At Edge Of Space Explained." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 September 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080925144806.htm>.
California Institute of Technology. (2008, September 26). Puzzling Property Of Night-shining Clouds At Edge Of Space Explained. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080925144806.htm
California Institute of Technology. "Puzzling Property Of Night-shining Clouds At Edge Of Space Explained." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080925144806.htm (accessed April 24, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Nuclear-Level Asteroids Might Be More Common Than We Realize

Nuclear-Level Asteroids Might Be More Common Than We Realize

Newsy (Apr. 23, 2014) The B612 Foundation says asteroids strike Earth much more often than previously thought, and are hoping to build an early warning system. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA Chief Outlines Plan for Human Mission to Mars

NASA Chief Outlines Plan for Human Mission to Mars

AFP (Apr. 22, 2014) NASA administrator Charles Bolden, speaking at the 'Human to Mars Summit' in Washington, says that learning more about the Red Planet can help answer the 'fundamental question' of 'life beyond Earth'. Duration: 00:48 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Nasa Gives You An Excuse to Post a Selfie on Earth Day

Nasa Gives You An Excuse to Post a Selfie on Earth Day

TheStreet (Apr. 22, 2014) NASA is inviting all social media users to take a selfie of themselves alongside nature and to post it to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, or Google Plus with the hashtag #globalselfie. NASA's goal is to crowd-source a collection of snapshots of the earth, ground-up, that will be used to create one "unique mosaic of the Blue Marble." This image will be available to all in May. Since this is probably one of the few times posting a selfie to Twitter won't be embarrassing, we suggest you give it a go for a good cause. Video provided by TheStreet
Powered by NewsLook.com
SpaceX's Dragon Spacecraft Captured by International Space Station

SpaceX's Dragon Spacecraft Captured by International Space Station

Reuters - US Online Video (Apr. 20, 2014) SpaceX's unmanned Dragon spacecraft makes a scheduled Easter Sunday rendezvous with the International Space Station. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins