Hampton University Led AIM Satellite Mission Observes First Week of the Arctic Noctilucent Cloud Season

The “blue puff” in this satellite image from AIM’s spacecraft is the first detected noctilucent cloud of the 2020 summer season

HAMPTON, Va. (June 2, 2020) – Hampton University leads NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite mission, which observed the first week of the Arctic noctilucent cloud season that began in early May. AIM spotted the night-shining clouds about 50 miles overhead in a layer of the atmosphere called the mesosphere. The May 17th detection marks the second earliest start in the 14-year history of the mission. The cloud season is expected to run through mid-August.

“Hampton University continues to reach new heights in academic standards world-wide. We continue to uphold THE Standard of Excellence and lead the way in innovative research. AIM launched 14 years ago and is still proving to be a crucial mission, as it continues to advance scientists’ understanding of global change,” said Dr. William R. Harvey, Hampton University President.

AIM was launched in 2007 via a Pegasus XL launch vehicle. The purpose of AIM is determine why noctilucent, or night-shining, clouds form and why they vary. These clouds are called “night-shining” because their high altitude allows them to continue reflecting sunlight after the sun has set below the horizon. AIM is NASA’s first mission dedicated to exploring these unique and mysterious clouds, and Hampton University is the first and only HBCU to have total 100% responsibility for a NASA satellite mission. Hampton University has a total of four satellites/ instruments currently in orbit.

“Every year, twice a year, the start of the season is a big event for us,” said Dr. James Russell, AIM principal investigator and co-director of Hampton University’s Center for Atmospheric Sciences. “The reason we’re excited is we’re trying to find out what the causes of the season’s starting are and what does it really mean with regard to the larger picture in the atmosphere.”

Noctilucent clouds, also known as polar mesospheric clouds (PMCs), are being seen at lower latitudes than ever before, and have recently grown brighter and more frequent, suggesting a connection to global change. These clouds help scientists better understand how the mesosphere is connected to the rest of the atmosphere, weather and climate.

Scientists are excited to see what the cloud season will show. By measuring PMCs and the thermal, chemical and dynamical environment in which they form, the connection between these clouds and the meteorology of the polar mesosphere will be better understood. Last year, these clouds were spotted as far south as southern California and Oklahoma, which according to Dr. Russell, is the lowest latitudes they have ever been seen before. “With every year, we get new data to help us put together a picture of the atmosphere,” Dr. Russell said.

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