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NASA Satellite Captures First View Of Night-Shining Clouds

Photo: This image shows one of the first ground sightings of noctilucent clouds in the 2007 season. Credit: Veres Viktor of Budapest, Hungary taken on June 15, 2007.

June 28, 2007
A NASA satellite has captured the first occurrence this summer of mysterious iridescent polar clouds that form 50 miles above Earth's surface.

The first observations of these clouds by the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite occurred above 70 degrees north on May 25. Observers on the ground began seeing the clouds on June 6 over northern Europe. AIM is the first satellite mission dedicated to the study of these unusual clouds.

These mystifying clouds are called Polar Mesospheric Clouds, or PMCs, when they are viewed from space and referred to as "night-shining" clouds, or noctilucent clouds, when viewed by observers on Earth. The clouds form during the Northern Hemisphere's summer season that begins in mid-May and extends through the end of August. They are being seen by AIM's instruments more frequently as the season progresses. The clouds also are seen in the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere during the summer months.

Very little is known about how these clouds form over the poles, why they are being seen more frequently and at lower latitudes than ever before, or why they have been growing brighter. AIM will observe two complete polar mesospheric cloud seasons over both poles, documenting for the first time the entire, complex life cycle of PMCs.

"It is clear that PMCs are changing, a sign that a distant and rarified part of our atmosphere is being altered, and we do not understand how, why or what it means," stated AIM principal investigator James Russell III, Hampton University, Hampton, Va. "These observations suggest a connection with global change in the lower atmosphere and could represent an early warning that our Earth's environment is being altered."

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