Mountains Soar Above the Appalachians in this Dramatic NASA Photo

Except these are mountains made of water, not rock! Taken from an altitude of 65,000 feet, the image above shows enormous storm cells swirling high over the mountains of western North Carolina on May 23, 2014. It was captured from one of NASA’s high-altitide ER-2 aircraft during a field research flight as part of the Integrated Precipitation and Hydrology Experiment (IPHEx) campaign.

The photo was NASA’s Image of the Day for June 19, 2014.

Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite (NASA/Britt Griswold)
Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite (NASA/Britt Griswold)

For six weeks the IPHEx campaign team from NASA, NOAA, and Duke University set up ground stations and flew ER-2 missions over the southeastern U.S., collecting data on weather and rainfall that will be used to supplement and calibrate data gathered by the GPM Core Observatory launched in February.

By the time its role in IPHEx was completed on June 16, the Lockheed ER-2 aircraft had flown more than 95 hours during 18 flights over North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. Its high-altitude capabilities allow researchers to safely fly above storm systems, taking measurements like a satellite would.

Learn more about the ER-2 flights here, and read more about the IPHEx campaign on Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering site here.

Source: NASA

NASA's ER-2 at the Armstrong Flight Research Center's Building 703 in Palmdale, CA (NASA / Tom Tschida)
NASA’s ER-2 at the Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Building 703 in Palmdale, CA (NASA/Tom Tschida)

Earth’s Highest Clouds Shine at the “Top of the Orbit”

Looking for a new desktop background? This might do nicely: a photo of noctilucent “night-shining” clouds seen above a midnight Sun over Alaska, taken from the ISS as it passed over the Aleutian Islands just after midnight local time on Sunday, August 4.

When this photo was taken Space Station was at the “top of the orbit” — 51.6 ºN, the northernmost latitude that it reaches during its travels around the planet.

According to the NASA Earth Observatory site, “some astronauts say these wispy, iridescent clouds are the most beautiful phenomena they see from orbit.” So just what are they? Read on…

Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds, or PMCs) are the highest cloud formations in Earth’s atmosphere. They form when there is just enough water vapor present to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it’s just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen or just before sunrise, giving them their eponymous property.

NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)
NLCs seen in the southern hemisphere in Jan. 2010 (NASA)

Noctilucent clouds have also been associated with rocket launches, space shuttle re-entries, and meteoroids, due to the added injection of water vapor and upper-atmospheric disturbances associated with each. Also, for some reason this year the clouds appeared a week early.

Read more: Noctilucent Clouds — Electric Blue Visitors from the Twilight Zone

Some data suggest that these clouds are becoming brighter and appearing at lower latitudes, perhaps as an effect of global warming putting more greenhouse gases like methane into the atmosphere.

“When methane makes its way into the upper atmosphere, it is oxidized by a complex series of reactions to form water vapor,” said James Russell, the principal investigator of NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) project and a professor at Hampton University. “This extra water vapor is then available to grow ice crystals for NLCs.”

A comparison of noctilucent cloud formation from 2012 and 2013 has been compiled using data from the AIM spacecraft. You can see the sequence here.

And for an incredible motion sequence of noctilucent clouds — taken from down on the ground — check out the time-lapse video below by Maciej Winiarczyk, coincidentally made at around the same time as the ISS photo above:

(The video was featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for August 19, 2013.)

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

New Desktop Image Alert: The Moon Over Earth

If you’re like me, you don’t change your computer’s desktop background nearly often enough… especially not considering all the fantastic space images that get released on an almost daily basis. But this picture, shared a couple of weeks ago by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on their Flickr stream, really should inspire you to fix that. (I know it did for me!)

Captured by an Expedition 28 crew member aboard the International Space Station, this beautiful image shows a crescent-lit Moon seen through the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

As it circles the globe, the ISS travels an equivalent distance to the Moon and back in about a day, making an excellent platform for viewing the Earth and its atmosphere. This photo shows the limb of Earth near the bottom transitioning into the orange-colored troposphere, the lowest and most dense portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. The troposphere ends abruptly at the tropopause, which appears in the image as the sharp boundary between the orange- and blue- colored atmosphere. Silvery-blue noctilucent clouds extend far above the Earth’s troposphere.

Expedition 28 began on May 23, 2011, with a crew consisting of Andrey Borisenko, Ron Garan, Alexander Samokutyaev, Sergei Volkov, Mike Fossum, and Satoshi Furukawa.

Image credit: NASA (Source)


Venus’ Winds Are Mysteriously Speeding Up

High-altitude winds on neighboring Venus have long been known to be quite speedy, whipping sulfuric-acid-laden clouds around the superheated planet at speeds well over 300 km/h (180 mph). And after over six years collecting data from orbit, ESA’s Venus Express has found that the winds there are steadily getting faster… and scientists really don’t know why.

Cloud structures in Venus' atmosphere, seen by Venus Express' Ultraviolet, Visible and Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRTIS) in 2007 (ESA)
Cloud structures in Venus’ atmosphere, seen by Venus Express’ Ultraviolet, Visible and Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRTIS) in 2007 (ESA)

By tracking the movements of distinct features in Venus’ cloud tops at an altitude of 70 km (43 miles) over a period of six years — which is 10 of Venus’ years — scientists have been able to monitor patterns in long-term global wind speeds.

What two separate studies have found is a rising trend in high-altitude wind speeds in a broad swath south of Venus’ equator, from around 300 km/h when Venus Express first entered orbit in 2006 to 400 km/h (250 mph) in 2012. That’s nearly double the wind speeds found in a category 4 hurricane here on Earth!

“This is an enormous increase in the already high wind speeds known in the atmosphere. Such a large variation has never before been observed on Venus, and we do not yet understand why this occurred,” said Igor Khatuntsev from the Space Research Institute in Moscow and lead author of a paper to be published in the journal Icarus.

Long-term studies based on tracking the motions of several hundred thousand cloud features, indicated here with arrows and ovals, reveal that the average wind speeds on Venus have increased from roughly 300 km/h to 400 km/h over the first six years of the mission. (Khatuntsev et al.)
Long-term studies based on tracking the motions of several hundred thousand cloud features, indicated here with arrows and ovals, reveal that the average wind speeds on Venus have increased from roughly 300 km/h to 400 km/h over the first six years of the mission. (Khatuntsev et al.)

A complementary Japanese-led study used a different tracking method to determine cloud motions, which arrived at similar results… as well as found other wind variations at lower altitudes in Venus’ southern hemisphere.

“Our analysis of cloud motions at low latitudes in the southern hemisphere showed that over the six years of study the velocity of the winds changed by up 70 km/h over a time scale of 255 Earth days – slightly longer than a year on Venus,” said Toru Kouyama from Japan’s Information Technology Research Institute. (Their results are to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.)

Both teams also identified daily wind speed variations on Venus, along with shifting wave patterns that suggest “upwelling motions in the morning at low latitudes and downwelling flow in the afternoon.” (via Cloud level winds from the Venus Express Monitoring Camera imaging, Khatuntsev et al.)

A day on Venus is longer than its year, as the planet takes 243 Earth days to complete a single rotation on its axis. Its atmosphere spins around it much more quickly than its surface rotates — a curious feature known as super-rotation.

“The atmospheric super-rotation of Venus is one of the great unexplained mysteries of the Solar System,” said ESA’s Venus Express Project Scientist Håkan Svedhem. “These results add more mystery to it, as Venus Express continues to surprise us with its ongoing observations of this dynamic, changing planet.”

Read more here on ESA’s Venus Express page.

An Early Start for Noctilucent Clouds

The season for noctilucent “night-shining” clouds is arriving in the northern hemisphere, when wispy, glowing tendrils of high-altitude ice crystals may be seen around the upper latitudes, shining long after the Sun has set. Found about 83 km (51 miles) up, noctilucent clouds (also called polar mesospheric clouds) are the highest cloud formations in the atmosphere. They’ve been associated with rocket launches and space shuttle re-entries and are now thought to also be associated with meteor activity… and for some reason, this year they showed up a week early.

Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) form between 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles) above Earth’s surface when there is just enough water vapor to freeze into ice crystals. The icy clouds are illuminated by the Sun when it is just below the horizon, after darkness has fallen, giving them their night-shining properties. This year NASA’s AIM spacecraft, which is orbiting Earth on a mission to study high-altitude ice, started seeing noctilucent clouds on May 13th.

AIM map of noctilucent clouds over the north pole on June 8 (Credit: LASP/University of Colorado)
AIM map of noctilucent clouds over the north pole on June 8
(Credit: LASP/University of Colorado)

“The 2013 season is remarkable because it started in the northern hemisphere a week earlier than any other season that AIM has observed,” reports Cora Randall of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. “This is quite possibly earlier than ever before.”

The early start is extra-puzzling because of the solar cycle. Researchers have long known that NLCs tend to peak during solar minimum and bottom-out during solar maximum — a fairly strong anti-correlation. “If anything, we would have expected a later start this year because the solar cycle is near its maximum,” Randall says. “So much for expectations.”

Read more on the NASA AIM page here, and watch the [email protected] video below for the full story. (Also, check out some very nice NLC photos taken last week in the UK by Stuart Atkinson at Cumbrian Sky.)

Source: NASA

Astrophoto: Paint the Sky with Clouds

Here’s a great – and beautiful! – example of what you can do with image stacking. Manoj Kesavan, an avid astrophotographer based at Massey University, New Zealand shot 300 images during 45 minutes at sunset (6:45 pm to 7.30 pm local time) from Palmerston North, New Zealand. “It’s a stack of 300 images, which means virtually putting all 300 photos on top of each other,” Kesavan explained via email. “So the cloud formation, movement and the transformation of sky color from blue to purple to red are captured on one single final image. And the saturation has been pumped up during the post processing.”

Kesavan said he shot this as part of an upcoming timelapse, using a Canon 7D using SIgma 10-20mm at 10mm, iso 100 & f8.

It’s a beautiful result and we look forward to seeing the timelapse! See more of Kesavan’s photography at his Facebook page or Flickr stream.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Weird Cloud ‘Coils’ Captured by Earth-Observing Satellite

These are some of the strangest looking clouds I’ve seen from the fleet of Earth-observing satellites. These coil-like or bow-wave-shaped clouds were created by the clouds passing over the Prince Edward Islands, in the south Indian Ocean. It was taken by the Terra satellite with the MODIS instrument (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) on March 26, 2013.

Update: Vitaliy Egorov from the Russian website has sent us an animation of these coil clouds as seen by the Russian satellite Elektro-L:

Animation is made up of 17 frames made satellite “Electro-L” from 12:30 to 20:30 GMT March 26, 2013 at 1 frame per 30 minutes. Photo: Roscosmos / NTSOMZ / Electro-L /

The images are taken from a different angle than the Terra satellite. You can see more at Egorov’s website.

NASA says MODIS is playing a vital role in the development of validated, global, interactive Earth system models able to predict global change accurately enough to assist policy makers in making sound decisions concerning the protection of our environment.

A New Look at Saturn’s Northern Hexagon

Freshly delivered from Cassini’s wide-angle camera, this raw image gives us another look at Saturn’s north pole and the curious hexagon-shaped jet stream that encircles it, as well as the spiraling vortex of clouds at its center.

Back in November we got our first good look at Saturn’s north pole in years, now that Cassini’s orbit is once again taking it high over the ringplane. With spring progressing on Saturn’s northern hemisphere the upper latitudes are getting more and more sunlight — which stirs up storm activity in its atmosphere.

The bright tops of upper-level storm clouds speckle Saturn’s skies, and a large circular cyclone can be seen near the north pole, within the darker region contained by the hexagonal jet stream. This could be a long-lived storm, as it also seems to be in the images captured on November 27.

About 25,000 km (15,500 miles) across, Saturn’s hexagon is wide enough to fit nearly four Earths inside!

The Saturn hexagon as seen by Voyager 1 in 1980 (NASA)
The Saturn hexagon as seen by Voyager 1 in 1980 (NASA)

The hexagon was originally discovered in images taken by the Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. It encircles Saturn at about 77 degrees north latitude and is estimated to whip around the planet at speeds of 354 km/h (220 mph.)

Watch a video of the hexagon in motion here.

The rings can be seen in the background fading into the shadow cast by the planet itself. A slight bit of ringshine brightens Saturn’s nighttime limb.

Cassini was approximately 579,653 kilometers (360,180 miles) from Saturn when the raw image above (W00079643) was taken.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


Take a Rollercoaster Ride Around Venus

If you’ve ever wanted to see what it’s like to buzz Venus like only a spacecraft can, here’s your chance: this is a video animation of images taken by ESA’s Venus Express as it makes a pole-to-pole orbit of our neighboring world.

Captured in ultraviolet wavelengths, the images were acquired by the spacecraft’s Venus Monitoring Camera last January over a period of 18 hours. It’s truly a “day in the life” of Venus Express!

From ESA’s description of the video:

We join the spacecraft from a staggering 66,000 km above the south pole, staring down into the swirling south polar vortex. From this bird’s-eye view, half of the planet is in darkness, the ‘terminator’ marking the dividing line between the day and night sides of the planet.

Intricate features on smaller and smaller scales are revealed as Venus Express dives to just 250 km above the north pole and clouds flood the field of view, before regaining a global perspective as it climbs away from the north pole.

The observed pattern of bright and dark markings is caused by variations in an unknown absorbing chemical at the Venus cloud tops.

Read more: Are Venus’ Volcanoes Still Active?

False-color image of cloud features on Venus. Captured by Venus Express from a distance of 30,000 km (18,640 miles) on December 8, 2011. (ESA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

Source: European Space Agency

Incredible Raw Image of Saturn’s Swirling North Pole

Ok, are you ready for this?

I know… WOW.

This swirling maelstrom of clouds is what was seen over Saturn’s north pole earlier today, November 27, by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. This is a raw image, acquired in polarized light, from a distance of 238,045 miles (383,097 kilometers)… all I did was remove some of the hot pixels that are commonly found on Cassini images taken with longer exposures.

Again… WOW.

My attempt at a color composite can be seen below, plus another treat:

It’s rough, and a little muddy because the clouds were moving between image channels (not to mention the blue channel image was rather underexposed) but here’s a color-composite of the same feature, made from images taken from a slightly different perspective:

Color composite of Saturn’s north polar vortex

Pretty darn cool… Cassini does it yet again!

The images above show an approximately 3,000-4,000-km-wide cyclone above Saturn’s north pole. Saturn is also known to have a long-lived hexagonal jet stream feature around its north pole as well, but that is not shown in those images as it runs along a lower latitude. Instead, you can see that HERE:

Saturn’s northern hexagon

Captured with a wider angle, in this image the hexagon structure can be made out as well as the cyclone, which sits at the center just over the pole. Saturn’s hexagon is about 25,000 km (15,500 miles) in diameter… large enough to fit almost four Earths inside. This image was also acquired today.

An RGB composite of this feature is below:

Saturn’s northern hexagon – color composite

It’s been a few years since we’ve gotten such a good look at Saturn’s north pole… thanks to Cassini’s new orbital trajectory, which is taking it high above the ring plane and poles of Saturn, we now have the opportunity to view the gas giant’s dynamic upper latitudes again. I’m sure this is just a taste of what’s to come!

(Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Color composites by Jason Major)