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PoSSUM airborne Campaign, Chapter 1: an explosive start!

As I am finally making my way to High Level in Alberta, Canada, my new adventures are just kicking off. I don't know anyone, almost nothing of the area, or barely what I will do and encounter, but I surely didn't know what I was going to experience on the second day... Aren't you eager to find out?

June 23rd 2017, 9:50 p.m.: After an exhausting but smooth journey by air, I step foot in Edmonton airport and went down to get my heavy pieces of luggage on the conveyer belt. The first thing I saw confirmed that I landed at the right place: Tim Horton’s. I ordered a sandwich and took a shuttle to my hotel, where I was going to stay overnight. I didn’t take long for me to fall dead on the bed, I will give you that! In the morning, I woke up to a beautiful Albertan sunrise, and as I got ready to be picked up by my future PoSSUM colleagues, I listen to a ‘Spaceshow’ podcast featuring Jason Reimuller, the executive director of Project PoSSUM and flight pilot. I urge you to listen to the podcast if you are interested in knowing more about the project, our mission in Alberta and noctilucent clouds in general. It is an hour long, but it is a great introduction if you have a little time to kill! Take a listen here:

As I was sitting on the sofa in the lobby, two men eventually presented themselves to me, Dr. Armin Kleinboeh and Bjorn Kjellstrand. We got going right then since our journey should last no longer than a mere 7.5 hours. The ride was long and we had plenty of time to get to know each other, which was great! I would regularly check out the car window as I had never been further north than Edmonton. The landscapes were stagerring! Not that you could see that much, but a continuous and dense boreal forest. After a few stops, we finally made it safely in High Level, Alberta, situated 58.5 deg North of latitude: perfect for noctilucent clouds sightings. We arrived at a nice house just outside of town, which is itself very remote (no villages for about 250 km in either direction) in the hot sun of late June. As I went inside, I met the rest of the crew for the first time, including Jason Reimuller, Shawna Pandya, Casey Stedman and Anima Patil-Sabale. There wasn’t that much time for introduction as the team was already preparing for the night’s mission since the weather was flyable. Here is what the team consists of and what the goal of the mission is, as well as the different tasks:

''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.”

After eating a well needed pizza in town, we headed back home to hold our very first 7pm briefing to discuss weather, instrument, flight conditions and the different tasks. As the weather was next to perfect, we decided that it was a ‘GO’. Anima and Armin would be the flight team, whereas the ground team only consisted of Bjorn (PMC-turbo camera specialist, and myself as videographer and color ground-based imagery). The first night was just going to be a trial night to test the instrument on board and on the ground. First we made our way to High Level airport, where Jason, Anima and Armin boarded the plane and took off around 11:45 pm. As the sun sets around 11pm at this latitude and longitude, NLC would only start being visible around midnight. The rest of the ground crew headed back home, from where Bjorn would test the other PMC-turbo.

The purpose of the night was to try out the instrument, and it went very smoothly. The flight operations went according to plan as well. A very unexpected guest also appeared around 2:00 am: THE AURORA BOREALIS. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I thought it was too bright to catch them, but I guess as they come above head, they are bright enough to shine through the twilight. It was an incredible experience: An small NLC patch was evolving to the east, and the aurora above us, and I was really hoping that the two would meet, and they did! At around 2:15, the light came right on top of the NLC billows! Two rare polar phenomena in one frame! That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that one ought to see. At that point, I was so excited that I was running around the backyard trying to capture the scene at its best. Here are the stunning results:

My mission got pretty clear at Project PoSSUM: Take ground imagery for science communication, outreach and education, as well as research​. I will be posting more articles in the next few days. Here are some pictures from the first days, the crew, the instruments and the results:

I have been making video blogs (VLOG) about the development of our adventures from then on, because images speak way better than words. So here is the first week in a series of videos! You can subscribe to Project PoSSUM to watch them all and keep in tune! You can find more information about each individual VLOG in the Youtube description.


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