Reaching for the noctilucent clouds: the movie

Relive my thrilling adventures among the project PoSSUM during this summer's airborne research campaign aiming at studying noctilucent clouds from a brand new perspective...

Thirteen Project PoSSUM scientist-astronaut candidates representing several different countries traveled in June 2017 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. We operated from High Level Airport from 24 June through 7 July. Our goal was 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 would 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.

Flying at night over the remote wilderness of the Canadian subarctic, the PoSSUM team was divided into payload specialists and Mission Specialists. The payload specialists operated 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. Much of what the PoSSUM astronaut-candidates have learned during their PoSSUM training programs at Embry-Riddle was 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 would also require precise navigation, effective communications and crew resource management techniques, as well as an intimate knowledge of the cameras and their control systems.

Relive our incredible and very successful campaign in this 4K trailer I made for the occasion:

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