One of the most promising scientific applications for reusable suborbital spacecraft is the study of the upper atmosphere. In recent years, atmospheric researchers have discovered a wide range of electrical phenomena that we previously unsuspected. These have been given exotic names like red sprites, blue jets, blue starters, ELVEs, halos, trolls, and gnomes. There may be others we have not yet discovered. We will learn a lot more when we have an affordable way to access the “ignore-osphere” on a reliable, repeatable basis.

One of the latest additions to this electrical menagerie: NASA has discovered dark lightning.


Written by Astro1 on January 8th, 2013 , Atmospheric Science

Dr. Jason Reimuller of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado spoke at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting on Monday.  In a session on “Exploring Geoscience Frontiers with Low-Cost Access to Space,” Dr. Reimuller talked about his plan to study polar mesospheric clouds (also called noctilucent clouds) with funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.

Dr. Reimuller’s experiment plan calls for a week-long campaign with multiple flights of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft operating from a high-latitude launch site. Elmendorf AFB, Alaska and Kiruna, Sweden are possibilities. Reimuller plans to conduct one initial flight from Mojave to gather baseline instrument data prior to the high-latitude deployment.

The first year’s campaign, flying on the Lynx Mark II, would use a Canon EOS-30D camera with a linear polarizer as the primary instrument. In later years, the Lynx Mark III would carry a dedicated external observatory.

XCOR Lynx with Atsa Suborbital Observatory space telescope

Reimuller considers the ability to fly multiple times per day to be a key advantage for reusable suborbital spacecraft. Based on past experience with aircraft experiments, he believes the ability to tweak an instrument and refly within two hours is important.

Reimuller doesn’t expect to use the full capacity of the Lynx every day, however. Instead, he expects there will be some flights available for other researchers who want to piggy-back onto the high-latitude deployment.

Would there be takers for those flights? Certainly. We spoke to another atmospheric researcher later in the day who told us about her own requirement for high-latitude missions. In fact, we would likely take advantage of such an opportunity ourselves. Once our High Altitude Astrobiology experiment is successfully demonstrated, we will want to repeat the experiment at various geographic locations, including multiple latitudes.

Written by Astro1 on December 4th, 2012 , Atmospheric Science, XCOR Aerospace

The electromagnetic signature of lightning storms can be used to probe planetary atmospheres, providing information about the global density of constituents such as water, methane, and ammonia around the entire planet. Combining the technique with other instruments could provide a more accurate inventory of the planet’s atmosphere.

Schumann resonance lightning signature

The signature, known as Schumann Resonance, is created by lightning storms around the globe. On Earth, for example, there are an average of 50 lightning flashes every second. The discharges combine to create a beating pulse of electromagnetic waves that circles the Earth between the ground and the lower ionosphere.

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Written by Astro1 on May 4th, 2012 , Atmospheric Science, Planetary science