Up, up, where Earth's atmosphere brushes the edge of space, there lies a realm of sprites and elves. But these fanciful creatures are actually flashes of light that illuminate a mysterious part of our upper atmosphere called the mesosphere. Scientists have tried for years to study this region directly, but for the most part exploring this world firsthand remains a fairy tale.
A new program hopes to change that by training citizens with a science or engineering background—but who don't necessarily work as researchers—to head into the mesosphere on future commercial spaceflights to collect data.
Called Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere), the four-day course based at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida trains people to run scientific equipment at the top of the atmosphere. The idea is to build a cadre of citizens who are prepared for the physical rigors of such a flight and know how to operate sampling equipment, says Jason Reimuller, a pilot, engineer, and lead scientist on the project.
The science curriculum focuses on sampling night-shining, or noctilucent, clouds, but since the mesosphere is also a prime location for studying global climate change, Reimuller hopes his students can eventually help with that data collection too. (Learn the secrets of night-shining clouds.)
Graduates could one day hop aboard a commercial spaceflight—perhaps one run by Virgin Galactic or XCOR—with instruments for measuring the temperature or collecting images of night-shining clouds in the mesosphere between 31 and 53 miles (50 to 85 kilometers) up.
"It's a chance to not just be a passenger, but to do science," says Deniz Burnham, part of the program's first graduating class. As a drilling supervisor with a background in chemical engineering, Burnham says snagging a spot on a commercial flight into the mesosphere would fulfill a lifelong dream.
A Whole New World
For now such commercial flights are still in the planning stages, but eventually this could open up a whole new world for studying the upper atmosphere firsthand, says Hanli Liu, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
Right now, says Liu, who isn't involved with Project PoSSUM, conventional aircraft and balloons can't fly high enough to reach the mesosphere, and this region is too low for satellites. So scientists have had to use indirect methods like radar or lidar—a kind of radar that uses lasers—to deduce basics like wind direction or temperatures in the mesosphere.
Air currents and the waves they create "play a huge role in the dynamics of the mesosphere," Liu says. And inputs of carbon dioxide or methane can influence the formation of night-shining clouds. But to better grasp just how this system works, researchers need more data—preferably collected from within this region. (Read about how climate change may give us more noctilucent clouds.)
There have been attempts to directly sample this part of the atmosphere using rockets, but each launch costs roughly a half million to a million dollars and takes about a year to plan, says Matt DeLand, an atmospheric scientist at Science Systems and Applications (SSAI) who works with NASA. And scientists get only one chance with each flight.
It will probably be another five years, at least, until regular commercial spaceflights are possible, says DeLand. Companies are still grappling with technical challenges and have had setbacks, including a crash that killed a pilot and severely injured another during a test flight last November. But DeLand remains optimistic. "If they offered me a ride, I'd sign on the bottom line." (Learn why that crash might spur more regulation of the commercial spaceflight industry.)
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