NASA has revealed that the Super Soaker mission, a small suborbital rocket launched in Alaska, can help understand bright clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere. The finding was made after a study funded by the space agency shared the results of the project. In this case, the work showed that the water vapor in the upper atmosphere can quickly lower the temperature and start the formation of this type of cloud.
The phenomenon was first identified in the late 1800s and can be most easily observed in the twilight hours – a time when the sun illuminates them beyond the horizon against a dark sky. However, scientists warn that the glimpse has become more frequent in recent years with the advancement of space exploration. This is because these clouds tend to form in areas of high altitude, a region where there is an abundance of water vapor right after the launch of rockets.
“What attracted a lot of interest in these clouds is their sensitivity. They occur at the limit of viability in the upper atmosphere, where it is incredibly dry and cold. They are also very sensitive indicators of changes in temperature and water vapor,” said Richard Collins, space physicist study leader in a NASA statement.
Thus, they created an experiment with the use of equipment capable of tracking the movement of steam and artificially seeding water in a polar mesospheric cloud (PMC) – characterized by small junctions of ice crystals. To validate the hypothesis, the team carried out a test in January 2018 in Alaska, a month in which the phenomenon does not present natural conditions for its formation.
After reaching an altitude of about 85 kilometers, the researchers activated the compartment with the water reservoir, releasing it into the atmosphere. Eighteen seconds later, radar detected a weak beam from the formation of a PMC.
“We wanted to avoid mixing artificially created PMCs with naturally occurring ones. In this way, we were able to make sure that any PMC observed was generated by the Super Soaker experiment,” commented Irfan Azeem, a member of the mission.