Balloon Noctilucent Cloud Imagery

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PoSSUM Graduates are doing Noctilucent Cloud Research in Antarctica!

PoSSUM members, working together with Integrated Spaceflight Services, develop high-altitude balloon camera systems and a payload bay to support student payloads that will fly over Antarctica in 2017 as part of the NASA-Funded PMC-Turbo Experiment.

PMC-Turbo: A NASA-Funded Noctilucent Cloud Mission

Project PoSSUM Chief Scientist Dr. Dave Fritts and Executive Director Dr. Jason Reimuller were selected as part of a $1.4M NASA-funded experiment to fly PoSSUM camera systems on a high-altitude, unmanned balloon in support of the imagery experiment around the Antarctic polar vortex for two weeks in December 2017. Project PoSSUM works in partnership with GATS, Columbia University, and Integrated Spaceflight Services. PoSSUM Graduates are engaged in the instrument development, operations, and educational outreach efforts in this novel experiment that will study atmospheric dynamics that can only be viewed in exquisite detail through very high resolution imagery techniques.

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Science Objectives

The images obtained during the campaign will be used to analyze how waves generated at lower altitudes dissipate via instability and turbulence processes. These processes account for the deposition of significant energy and momentum transported by the waves from lower altitudes. They also play key roles in weather and climate throughout the atmosphere, but are poorly understood at present. Imaging of noctilucent clouds provides a unique window on these processes that is not available at any other altitude. Thus, this largely inaccessible region has the potential to educate us about important processes occurring throughout the atmosphere.

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Payload Development

In 2017, the team constructed the gondola and the camera, power, communications, control systems, and associated interfacing software. The novel camera system to be used in the campaign will employ an array of seven scientific camera systems to be configured for sustained operations in the Antarctic stratosphere.  The camera enclosures were constructed by Integrated Spaceflight Services in Boulder, CO and be shipped to Columbia University for software integration and test, later to be integrated on the gondola and shipped to NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, TX for testing and integration.

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Flight Operations

The team will deploy to McMurdo Station, Antarctica in December 2017 to support launch and recovery operations through a one-month campaign. The launch will be timed once the summertime polar vortex is stable, which will guide the balloon around the Antarctic continent at an altitude up to 40km for a two-week flight that will capture 250TB of high-resolution imagery data. Coupled with temperature measurements to be obtained by a lidar payload provided by the German Space Agency (DLR), the team will obtain unprecedented insight into the complicated dynamics of our upper atmosphere.

Setting the Stage for Noctilucent Cloud Tomography

PMC-Turbo will validate the PoSSUM Wide Field Imager (WFI), Infrared (IR)and Visible camera systems in the space environment. Following completion of the PMC-Turbo project, PoSSUM and the PMC-Turbo team plan to extend the balloon imagery obtained in Antarctica with high-resolution tomographic imagery and coordinated in-situ measurements of the upper atmosphere. The cameras to be flown in Antarctica will be configured as the Wide-Field Imager (WFI) payload, one of a suite of five payloads designed to produce tomographic imagery through a series of suborbital flights as part of the suborbital PoSSUM Noctilucent Cloud Tomography Experiment. Operators of these instruments are being trained at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL, where candidates learn to effectively operate PoSSUM instrumentation to capture high-resolution tomographic imagery of noctilucent cloud structures through simulated suborbital flight.

Citizen-Science on Human-Tended Balloon Flights

Image Credit: WorldView Experience

Future NLC imagery flights may use citizen-science astronautics on commercial balloons (e.g. the WorldView Voyager) to continue to build high-resolution imagery of small-scale noctilucent cloud structures using the PoSSUMCam System over the period of over four hours per mission.