Scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute will be teaming with those at ten other institutions to take part in the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) mission over the next six years. The mission, recently funded by NASA as part of the Small Explorer program, will study clouds at the edge of space to resolve why they form and why they have been increasing over the last 30 years. The silvery-blue, highest-altitude clouds in Earth's atmosphere, known as noctilucent ("glow in the dark") or polar mesospheric clouds, usually form about 50 miles above Earth's polar regions each summer. However, in the last few decades the clouds have increased in number, appeared brighter and have been viewed further toward the equator – as far south as Utah for the last three consecutive summers.
The sudden introduction of these dramatic low-latitude displays was unexpected. In fact, some scientists have hypothesized that the clouds could be an indicator of global climate change in the upper atmosphere.
Temperature measurements made over several years indicate that temperatures are slowly growing cooler at high altitudes. This may explain the rising number of noctilucent cloud observations and ironically may be related to the phenomenon of global warming on Earth's surface.
Four science instruments aboard a satellite will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2006 to begin data gathering for the mission. The satellite will follow a polar orbit about 300 miles above Earth. Data will be recorded during four seasons over the 23-month satellite flight.
Assistant Professor Scott Bailey of the Geophysical Institute will serve as the mission's Deputy Principal Investigator and will coordinate with Lead Principal Investigator James Russell III from Hampton University in Virginia.
"We have a world-class team working on this project," said Bailey.
The AIM mission includes four science instruments from the Space Dynamics Laboratory of Utah State University, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) of the University of Colorado. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation will build the spacecraft and GATS, Inc., Newport News, Virginia will lead the data management effort. In addition to these institutions, science team members from George Mason University, St. Cloud State University and the British Antarctic Survey will participate.
With the possible involvement of the Geophysical Institute Alaska Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Facility's satellite data receiving antenna, the mission will bring up to $3 million to UAF over the six-year mission.
"Utilizing the Alaska SAR Facility would be more efficient for the data processing and less expensive for the project, leaving more funding for science," explained Bailey.
An added benefit to UAF for participating in the mission will be educational intern opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, Alaska secondary schools will benefit from mission-related education and public outreach efforts currently under development. Those efforts will be focused in the state of Alaska and will involve the UAF Alaska Space Grant Program.
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