19 Jun PoSSUM Scientist-Astronaut Candidates to study Noctilucent Clouds using Research Aircraft

High Level, AB. – Twelve Project PoSSUM scientist-astronaut candidates representing several different countries will travel this month to High Level in northern Alberta, Canada as part of an international citizen-science team that will study extremely high and elusive ‘space clouds’ called noctilucent clouds. They will operate from High Level Airport from 24 June through 7 July.


Their goal is to study the clouds that form at altitudes of 83 kilometers in the polar mesosphere from a Mooney M20K research aircraft that is specially equipped with scientific camera systems designed to image the clouds. The cameras will later be used for a high-altitude balloon campaign over Antarctica in December to study these clouds and later to fly through them in manned suborbital spacecraft, such as Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two.  Noctilucent clouds are believed to be sensitive indicators of man-made climate change and good proxies of low-density atmospheres such as that of Mars.


Project PoSSUM (an acronym for ‘Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere’) is an upper-atmospheric research and education program supported in part by NASA. Though based in Boulder, Colorado, PoSSUM members hail from 24 different countries and much of the research is conducted in Canada, including zero-G spacesuit testing at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, ON and noctilucent cloud flight research in High Level, AB.


Flying at night over the remote wilderness of the Canadian subarctic, the PoSSUM team is divided into payload specialists and Mission Specialists. The payload specialists will operate specialized camera system designed for noctilucent cloud observations that have been constructed by the PoSSUM team in collaboration with Columbia University in New York, NY. The mission specialists will carefully plan waypoints so that the aircraft is observing the same features as two ground stations, separated by 125 miles, and the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite, a NASA satellite that observes noctilucent clouds from space.


By carefully coordinating the flights with two ground stations, the team hopes to build tomography or three-dimensional images of the fine internal structures of the clouds from which turbulence and instabilities in the upper atmosphere may be better understood. By coordinating the flights with the overpasses of the AIM satellite, the team hopes to be able to look into how energy generated in the lower atmosphere disperses the upper atmosphere.


The only space-flight research program of its kind in the world, PoSSUM scientist-astronaut candidates train at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida with a curriculum that includes atmospheric science, remote sensing, celestial mechanics and navigation, and spaceflight physiology. There is mission simulation training for the would-be scientist-astronauts in a sub-orbital space flight simulator wearing a next-generation space suit, high-altitude and hypoxia awareness lessons, and aerospace physiology and microgravity training in analog flight conditions.


Much of what the PoSSUM astronaut-candidates have learned during their PoSSUM training programs at Embry-Riddle will be applied to this first field campaign. Flying at 23,000 feet in an unpressurized research aircraft is a challenging proposition and mission team members must be keenly aware of the effects of hypoxia. Flights will also require precise navigation, effective communications and crew resource management techniques, as well as an intimate knowledge of the cameras and their control systems.


“Flying at these altitudes in the remote Canadian wilderness at night requires careful mission planning and the crew must be well trained to function effectively in such an environment,” explained PoSSUM Executive Director and command pilot Dr. Jason Reimuller. “For many of the team members, this is as close to an actual space mission as you can get.”


Daily updates on the campaign will be provided on the PoSSUM Facebook Page (www.facebook.com/projectpossum) from June 24 through July 7.


Twelve new PoSSUM scientist-astronaut candidates will be selected for next PoSSUM scientist-astronaut program to be held from 6-12 October at Embry-Riddle. Interested individuals may apply online at www.projectpossum.org.

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