Launch of science instrument built in North Logan, Utah will give insight to changes in weather and climate

By Karen Wolfe
Utah State University, Space Dynamics Laboratory
April 25, 2007

North Logan—With today’s successful launch of NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) mission, Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab (SDL) sends another science instrument into space.

Using a Pegasus XL rocket carried aloft by a carrier aircraft, NASA launched the AIM mission into low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base at about 1:25 p.m. today. Three science instruments on the AIM payload will improve scientists’ understanding of Earth’s highest clouds, which are believed to be harbingers of global climate change.

SOFIE being integrated into the AIM payload at Orbital Sciences in Dulles, Virginia

SOFIE being integrated into the AIM payload at Orbital Sciences in Dulles, Virginia

SDL designed, built, tested, and integrated the Solar Occultation for Ice Experiment (SOFIE), which will take measurements of atmospheric constituents and noctilucent clouds. Recently, these dramatic silvery-blue clouds have increased in number, appeared brighter, and have been observed at much lower latitudes. These changes have brought notice and concern from scientists throughout the world.

SOFIE is expected to begin transmitting data approximately eight days from today’s launch and will continue to provide data for at least two years. Data from SOFIE and two other science instruments on the AIM mission will be transmitted to GATS Inc. of Newport News, VA where it will be processed and distributed to the AIM science team, which includes Dr. Mike Taylor, a physicist from Utah State University and co-investigator with the AIM science mission. The remainder of the science team includes 17 scientists from institutions throughout the world.

SOFIE will take temperature measurements of the mesosphere while also measuring mesospheric water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitric oxide, ozone and aerosols. From these measurements, scientists hope to determine what combination of these atmospheric constituents is required to form noctilucent clouds. SOFIE’s measurements will also provide a baseline with which scientists can gauge future changes in these poorly understood clouds.

In 2002, as part of its Small Explorer program, NASA funded the two-year AIM mission to answer scientists’ questions about changes occurring in the mesosphere where noctilucent clouds form. Working in close association with Dr. James Russell of Hampton University, and with GATS, Inc., SDL won the contract to design and build SOFIE. Russell is the principal investigator of the AIM mission and Larry Gordley of GATS is the principal investigator of the SOFIE instrument. SDL has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Gordley and Russell.

Two additional instruments built by University of Colorado’s Laboratory of Atmospheric & Space Physics are on orbit with SOFIE. One will take space-based photographs of the clouds while the other will measure the amount of cosmic dust entering Earth’s atmosphere.