Night Hawks

By Jane Koerner
Utah State Magazine – Winter 2007, Vol 13, No. 4
January 1, 2008

Noctilucent clouds
As the sun dips out of sight, a red stripe glazes the horizon, then the twilight sky lights up with silvery blue clouds. Some ripple like sails on a boat, others feather the deepening darkness.

It is summer in western Canada. Noctilucent clouds 50 miles above the Earth are putting on a show that competes with the northern lights.

“They are so delicate, as if someone took a paint brush and carefully placed them there,” says USU physics and math major Dan Burton. “Their display lasts for several hours, flaring up just after sunset, receding, then coming back full force.”

Burton and his companions were photographing the clouds for Burton’s mentor, physicist Mike Taylor of USU’s Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences. Usually such an assignment, involving expensive, delicate equipment, would be entrusted to a seasoned graduate student, but Burton proved so conscientious in his lab experiments for Physics 3870 that he got the assignment as a junior.

Noctilucent clouds in the Earth’s mesosphere aren’t the only phenomena of interest. Taylor’s digitized photo and video collection contains images of upper atmospheric lightning storms that disrupt satellite communications, space capsules as they shriek toward Earth, and meteor showers originating from the furthest frontier of our solar system. The infrared digital cameras developed in collaboration with USU’s Space Dynamics Lab for the extreme temperatures and challenging lighting conditions of NASA missions have made it possible for atmospheric scientists to probe the least understood part of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The first noctilucent clouds were spotted in Scotland in 1855 at the start of the Industrial Revolution. They used to be seen only at high latitudes, but in recent years they have been observed as far south as Portugal. In 1999 Taylor saw one from his front porch in Logan, grabbed his digital and video cameras and raced around the neighborhood, shooting images. The clouds appear to be growing brighter and more numerous. Scientists suspect global warming and pollution. Hence their heightened interest in learning more about the cloud formations.

The space capsule assignment came after the crash landing of Genesis in Utah’s desert. Its historic cargo was nearly destroyed, and NASA officials wanted to protect the next mission from a similar fate. If successful, Genesis’ successor, Stardust, would be the second to capture chemical clues to all the matter of our solar system that is stored in the surface of the sun. The reentry went flawlessly, and Taylor was there collecting data from the vantage point of an airplane.

The meteor showers are also photographed from airplanes in the middle of the night. Two thousand years ago, Comet Kiess ejected a cloud of dust as it passed the sun. In September that trail of dust wandered into Earth’s orbit, and this time Burton was also on hand for the midnight-to-midmorning flight. This meteor shower, reported only a few times before, had never been studied scientifically.

It is experiences like this that inspire Burton, at the seemingly invulnerable age of 26, to ponder his place in the universe. One night while he was gazing up at the stars, in the unfiltered night sky of southern Utah’s desert, a conversation with a friend turned serious.

“Doesn’t this make you feel small?” she said.

“No,” he said. “I feel enormous because it is all there for me. My possibilities are endless.”

He was talking about his relationship to the cosmos, but the sentiment also applies to his new-found passion for atmospheric physics. The same passion that caused Taylor to celebrate when a research post opened up at his alma mater in England, rescuing him from corporate confinement. Now a tenured professor at USU, he has no regrets about the lifelong compromise in salary. “We’re not just sitting in a lab, studying satellite images. We’ve got our feet on the ground, observing for ourselves what happens in the sky,” says Taylor, whose photo junkets have taken him from Brazil to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands off the coast of southern Argentina.

It was one o’clock in the morning when their loaner private jets took off from NASA Ames Research Center in California. The windows were covered with black cloth, the interior lights turned off. Physicists from Britain, France, Germany and the United States crouched at their computers, shouting out in their native tongues as pink and red fireballs streaked across their monitors. Six hours later as the sun rose on the Pacific, the shooting stars were gone, headed back to their birthing ground beyond Pluto, until the next, unpredictable migration. Who knows when they will come our way again, possibly not in our lifetimes.

For a few hours Mike Taylor and Dan Burton were among the chosen few who peered into a time capsule that took them back 4 ½ billion years to the clouds of rock and ice from which our solar system emerged. In the months ahead, as they pour over 35 hours of images, taking measurements and noting colors, they will gaze at the fingerprints of the elements that comprise our sun and gave birth to us.

© 2008 - Utah State University