On Wednesday a new piano-sized satellite was launched by NASA. The goal of this mission is to try to answer some unsolved mysteries about Earth's highest clouds:
The Orbital Sciences-built Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft is poised to rocket spaceward on a two-year mission to scan noctilucent, or ‘night-shining,’ clouds that can only observed after sunset. An air-launched Pegasus XL booster is due to loft the AIM probe at 4:23 p.m. EDT (2023 GMT) in a space shot to begin at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
“We are exploring clouds that literally are at the very edge of space,” James Russell, AIM’s principal investigator at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, said in a prelaunch mission briefing.
Also known as Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs), noctilucent clouds are made up of ice crystals and hover some 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface of the Earth. The cloudy phenomena tend to be seen above the Earth’s polar regions and have been observed from the ground and space, though not at the levels of detail expected from AIM, researchers said.
“This mission is the first mission dedicated to the study of noctilucent clouds,” Russell said. “We have observed them with satellites [in the past], and all it’s done is left us wanting.”