Mar. 20, 2012 Did you panic when you heard in recent news that two massive solar flares from the Sun were hitting Earth's atmosphere? The coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, typically produced by solar flares might pose a danger, if not for Earth's protective atmosphere and magnetosphere. Using International Space Station research and technology, scientists continue to learn more about the atmosphere, adding important new data to the collective understanding of this important defensive veil.
Atmospheric gasses, held in place by gravity, surround our planet and keep us safe from extreme temperatures, ultraviolet radiation, and the vacuum of space. Meanwhile, the magnetic fields generated by and surrounding Earth -- the magnetosphere -- help to shield us from the ever-present, solar wind-increased radiation events resulting from CMEs.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, developed a high-precision technology that resides outside the station, mounted on the Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility, or JEM-EF, as part of an investigation to study the chemical makeup of Earth's middle atmosphere. Known as the Superconducting Submillimeter-Wave Limb-Emission Sounder, or SMILES (http://smiles.tksc.jaxa.jp/), this hardware uses a superconducting detector cooled down to 4 Kelvins (-269 degrees Celsius) and is the first of its kind in space
A cooperation between JAXA and the Japanese National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, or NICT, made the development of SMILES possible. Their combined objective was to use this space station technology to demonstrate highly sensitive submillimeter-wave "the ozone layer."
The ozone layer helps to protect life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, and is destroyed by trace atmospheric constituents such as chlorine and bromine that can be produced from human-made refrigerants, solvents, and other compounds. The data collected by SMILES improves our understanding of how these trace atmospheric constituents impact the ozone layer.
A select set of research groups received observation data from SMILES, unique for its high sensitivity detection of atmospheric chemistry. The use of this data can help scientists find answers to questions of climate change, including ozone and global warming research. While SMILES is no longer collecting data, the hardware continues to run as a technology test on orbit.
A recent press release from JAXA announced that the confirmed high-precision data from this study, compiled during a 6 month period ending in April 2010, is now available for release to the public. The SMILES data includes 11 types of atmospheric minor elements, such as chlorine compounds and ozone. This knowledge helps to expand scientific understanding of the atmosphere's chemical makeup, specifically in the stratosphere and lower mesosphere.
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