Utah State in space—Rocket designed by USU launches into orbit to study high-altitude clouds

By Kim Burgess
The Herald Journal
April 26, 2007

Nearly 10 years ago, Utah State University professor Mike Taylor saw an unusual glow in Logan’s night sky.

The light came from a rare type of cloud, which forms high in the atmosphere and shines after dark. These noctilucent clouds are usually seen in polar regions and had never been documented as far south as Utah.

“It was quite a discovery,” Taylor said. “I just happened to have my camera. It was lucky.”

Today, many scientists believe the cloud’s southern migration is related to global warming. As carbon dioxide increases, the upper atmosphere cools because the gas blocks sunlight. Little more is known about the phenomenon.

That could soon change.

NASA’s new Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM), mission will spend the next two years studying the clouds. Taylor is part of the team, which will examine data from three instruments orbiting the Earth, one of which was designed and built at USU’s Space Dynamics Lab.

SDL’s SOFIE, or Solar Occultation for Ice Experiment, will determine what gases the clouds are made of and also measure their temperature. The device is approximately 27 inches high and 18 inches in diameter and resembles Star Wars’ R2-D2 robot. The other two instruments take photographs and record the amount of space dust entering the atmosphere. They were constructed at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Meegan M. Reid/Herald Journal Spectators watch the giant screen showing the NASA control room and the launch of SOFIE during Wednesday’s viewing of the launch at the Space Dynamics Lab.

On Wednesday afternoon, a jet took off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and launched a rocket that climbed 373 miles and released the three instruments into orbit. Taylor and nearly 200 other space enthusiasts watched Wednesday’s action on NASA TV. When the jet made the drop, the room erupted in claps and cheers.

“We are so delighted,” Taylor said, smiling at the crowd. “This project has taken years. It’s life has started.”

Now, Taylor just has to wait a few more months.

AIM will begin collecting data this week; when enough has accumulated, he can start analyzing the findings. With AIM’s statistics, Taylor and the other investigators will try to construct benchmarks that establish the amount of clouds in the air at any given time as well as their temperature and composition. Future NASA missions will compare their numbers to AIM’s and note any changes.

SDL mechanical engineer Andrew Shumway agreed that AIM’s data will be crucial in cracking the mystery of the clouds.

“We’re wondering, what do these clouds correlate with,” he said. “People are wondering if they are exhaust from space shuttles. People are just throwing out any ideas. It’s a significant question.”

Shumway was part of a core group of eight SDL scientists who built SOFIE over the past four years.

Watching their work blast into the atmosphere was “icing on the cake,” said computer scientist Joel Nelsen.

“This is the first instrument I’ve touched that is now in orbit,” he continued. “I’ve reached a personal goal.

SDL Deputy Director Harry Ames was mainly relieved

“About 10 percent of the knot in my stomach is gone,” he said. “When SOFIE gives us some data and shows that it really works, the other 90 percent will go away. We still have a lot more work to do, but it’s nice to have this part over.”

© 2007 The Herald Journal