Exhaust from the main engines of NASA’s space shuttle, which is about 97 percent water vapor, can travel to the Arctic in the Earth’s thermosphere where it forms ice to create some of the Earth’s highest clouds that literally shine at night, according to a new study led by the Naval Research Laboratory and jointly funded by NASA and the Office of Naval Research.
This image shows the launch of space shuttle STS-85 on August 7, 1997. The orange external tank contains over 700 metric tons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The main effluent is water. The Stevens et al. results show evidence that this water was transported to the Arctic where it formed a vast region of polar mesospheric clouds covering an area about 10% of North America. Credit: NASA
Because of their high altitude, near the edge of space, noctilucent clouds shine at night when the Suns rays hit them from below while the lower atmosphere is bathed in darkness. They typically form in the cold, summer polar mesosphere and are made of water ice crystals. Credit: Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C.
The thermosphere is the highest layer in our atmosphere, occupying the region above about 55 miles (88 kilometers) altitude. The clouds settle to 51 miles (82 km) altitude in the layer directly below called the mesosphere. The stratosphere and the troposphere lie in that order below the mesosphere.
Dr. Michael H. Stevens, the paper’s lead author and a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, reports that exhaust from the shuttle and other launch vehicles may help explain how some of these mysterious clouds are formed. The paper appeared on Saturday (May 31) in Geophysical Research Letters.
Krishna Ramanujan | NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
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