Ball Aerospace has won a contract to build a NASA spacecraft that will explore the little understood 100 kilometers above the arctic in the mesosphere where polar clouds form and drift southward. Selected as part of NASA's Small Explorer (SMEX) program the mission will increase our understanding of what surely must be "cloud nine" at the edge of space.
The Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM), a 23-month mission scheduled for launch in 2006, will attempt to resolve why polar mesospheric clouds (PMC) form and why they vary.
Positioned 50 miles above the Earth, the clouds have been observed more frequently over the past 30 years and are moving towards the equator, phenomena some scientists believe may be tied to changes in the global climate.
Ball Aerospace is building the AIM spacecraft. It will be based on the company's RS300 spacecraft, a family of small, low-cost remote-sensing buses. The spacecraft, which weighs less than 250 pounds, is an offshoot of the Ball Commercial Platform 2000, Ball Aerospace's line of spacecraft platforms, which includes the successful QuickBird spacecraft launched last October.
The AIM spacecraft is Ball Aerospace's second application of the new RS300 line; in March, Ball Aerospace was selected to build the NEXTSat spacecraft for the Orbital Express Advanced Technology Demonstration Program, funded through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
To supply two of the science payloads, the University of Colorado at Boulder will build two of the four instruments. CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, which will also control the AIM spacecraft from its campus, is expected to receive about $15 million over the six-year duration of the mission for instrument design and construction, data analysis and satellite control, said Professor Gary Thomas of LASP.
LASP was selected to design and build the Cloud Imaging and Particle Size instrument, or CIPS, which will image the polar mesospheric clouds and the sizes of particles within them, he said. In addition, LASP will design and build a Cosmic Dust Experiment to detect cosmic dust particles entering the atmosphere, said Senior Research Scientist David Rusch of LASP.
The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will build an imaging ultraviolet interferometer known as SHIMMER for the AIM mission, and Utah State University will build an instrument called SOFIE, an infrared solar occultation radiometer.
Thomas, one of the world's experts on the bizarre polar mesospheric clouds -- also known as noctilucent clouds -- said the LASP team is excited. "We have been planning this mission for four years now," he said. "When we received word that we had been selected to participate, we really whooped it up."
Slated for launch in 2006, the AIM mission is being led by Principal Investigator James Russell III of Hampton University in Hampton, Va.
The Co-Principal Investigator is Scott Bailey, a former LASP researcher who received his doctorate from CU-Boulder in astrophysical and planetary sciences and now is a faculty member at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
LASP's Michael McGrath is AIM's project manager. Co-Investigators on the 14-member science team include LASP researchers Thomas, Rusch, Mihaly Horani, Cora Randall, William McClintock and George Lawrence.
The project will involve numerous graduate and undergraduate students in instrument development, satellite control and data analysis, said Rusch.
Noctilucent, or "night-shining" clouds occur in the summer in the mesosphere, which is the coldest part of the atmosphere, said Thomas.
They first were reported in northern high latitudes in 1885. Their increasing frequency during the 20th century may be related to the Industrial Revolution, he said.
Noctilucent cloud formation likely is hastened by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, he said. While CO2 is thought to contribute to global warming on Earth, it ironically cools the middle and upper atmospheres.
Thomas predicted in 1994 that the noctilucent clouds would continue to brighten and would be visible over the continental United States by the 21st century. The clouds, which appear each year in the far northern and southern latitudes, were spotted over Colorado for the first time on June 22, 1999, from Coal Creek Canyon near Boulder.
"This was a big event," he said. "While they are a beautiful phenomenon, these clouds may be a message from Mother Nature that we are upsetting the equilibrium of the atmosphere."
The previous record for the southernmost sighting of these clouds in the continental United States was in Montana.
The AIM satellite will be launched into a polar orbit about 300 miles above Earth, said Thomas. "We will be receiving image data from over the polar caps about twice a day," he said.
Hampton U. AIM Web Page
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