Space lab lands cloud project

By Arrin Brunson
The Herald Journal
July 21, 2002

While most cloud-watchers spy the shapes of dinosaurs, bunny rabbits and other friendly creatures in the billowy puffs above, scientists at Utah State University Research Foundation's Space Dynamics Laboratory have found something more.

The earth's highest altitude clouds, commonly seen over the polar regions, were spotted for the first time in 1999 in Colorado and Utah. Now SDL is part of a project that is expected to bring $5-7 million in revenue and to occupy seven scientists, engineers and support personnel at the laboratory.

SDL is a teammate on the AIM (Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere) mission, one of two SMEX (Small Explorer) programs recently selected by NASA for launch, according to Trina Paskett, SDL public relations specialist.

The AIM mission will determine the causes of the highest altitude clouds in the Earth's Atmosphere, according to John Kemp, senior scientist at SDL. These clouds, called Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMC), form about 50 miles above the Earth's surface.

"We want to find out why the frequency of PMCs is increasing and why we are seeing PMCs further south than ever before," Kemp said. "AIM will study the characteristics of these clouds to try determine whether they are a natural occurrence or a result of something caused by the human environment."

SDL will build the primary infrared sensor, called SOFIE (Solar Occultation For Ice Experiment). SOFIE will measure the proportional amount of eight different atmospheric gases, Paskett said. This sensor is one of four sensors aboard the satellite, which is expected to launch in April 2006.

"The fun thing about SOFIE is that we are looking directly at the sun," said Kemp. "We usually look at dim objects with our infrared technology. For the first time we will be using the sun as a source that will help us learn the concentration of the different gases in the clouds."

Proposal manager Yvonne Polak said a team of scientists and engineers at SDL has been working for over four years to get this project awarded.

"It is nice to be part of another large program with NASA," she said.

The AIM mission will be directed by Hampton University with James M. Russell III, as the principal investigator. Other team members include the Naval Research Laboratory, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) of the University of Colorado, Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, and GATS, Inc. In addition to these institutions, science team members include Mike Taylor, physics professor at Utah State University and co-investigator for the project and scientists from George Mason University and the British Antarctic Survey.

"From the time Explorer 1 was launched more than 40 years ago and discovered the Van Allen radiation belts, Explorer satellites have made impressive discoveries by obtaining significant science at the lowest cost," said Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, NASA Headquarters. "The two missions we've selected will continue in the Explorer tradition by investigating some of the most fundamental questions raised in space science."

NASA's Small Explorer program provides frequent flight opportunities for highly focused and relatively inexpensive science missions. SMEX spacecraft weigh only 180 to 250 kg.