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NASA sent a balloon to observe ‘electric’ blue clouds, and they sure are pretty

Published Sep 21st, 2018 7:31PM EDT
electric blue clouds
Image: NASA/PMC Turbo/Joy Ng

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We’re used to NASA dropping gorgeous photos of far-off objects in space, but its most recent observations are much closer to home. In a new post on its website, NASA reveals the results of a mission that was conducted in early July of this year which saw a large balloon soar 50 miles into the sky to study clouds.

The target of the mission was a band of clouds known as PMCs. These “polar meospheric clouds” are thin and wispy, but they might hold clues that could reveal the mechanisms that control turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere.

“From what we’ve seen so far, we expect to have a really spectacular dataset from this mission,” Dave Fritts, principal investigator of the PMC Turbo mission — that’s the one with the big balloon — said in a statement. “Our cameras were likely able to capture some really interesting events and we hope will provide new insights into these complex dynamics.”

The powerful observation tools that NASA sent skyward captured an absolutely incredible amount of data. NASA says that the ballon snapped a whopping 6 million images during its flight, and that it filled 120 terabytes of storage. That’s a whole lot of cloud photos. NASA Goddard has published a nice little explainer video to YouTube that offers a crash course in why this kind of research is being conducted, which you can see above.

The information will help the scientists better understand both the turbulence in our planet’s upper atmosphere as well as the nature of turbulence in fluids elsewhere in the universe. NASA says it could even help make weather forecasts more accurate.

“Understanding a wide range of processes in near-Earth space — including how they interact with Earth’s atmosphere and weather — is a key part of NASA’s heliophysics research, which employs a full squad of satellites and sub-orbital instruments to observe different phenomena from different perspectives,” NASA says.