Mysterious Flashes Coming From Earth That Puzzled Carl Sagan Finally Have An Explanation

Sun glints off atmospheric ice crystals (circled in red) in this view captured by NASA's EPIC instrument on NOAA's DISCOVR satellite. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Back in 1993, Carl Sagan encountered a puzzle. The Galileo spacecraft spotted flashes coming from Earth, and nobody could figure out what they were. They called them ‘specular reflections’ and they appeared over ocean areas but not over land.

The images were taken by the Galileo space probe during one of its gravitational-assist flybys of Earth. Galileo was on its way to Jupiter, and its cameras were turned back to look at Earth from a distance of about 2 million km. This was all part of an experiment aimed at finding life on other worlds. What would a living world look like from a distance? Why not use Earth as an example?

Fast-forward to 2015, when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVER) spacecraft. DSCOVER’s job is to orbit Earth a million miles away and to warn us of dangerous space weather. NASA has a powerful instrument on DSCOVER called the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC.)

Every hour, EPIC takes images of the sunlit side of Earth, and these images can be viewed on the EPIC website. (Check it out, it’s super cool.) People began to notice the same flashes Sagan saw, hundreds of them in one year. Scientists in charge of EPIC started noticing them, too.

One of the scientists is Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. At first, he noticed them only over ocean areas, the same as Sagan did 25 years ago. Only after Marshak began investigating them did he realize that Sagan had seen them too.

Back in 1993, Sagan and his colleagues wrote a paper discussing the results from Galileo’s examination of Earth. This is what they said about the reflections they noticed: “Large expanses of blue ocean and apparent coastlines are present, and close examination of the images shows a region of [mirror-like] reflection in ocean but not on land.”

Marshak surmised that there could be a simple explanation for the flashes. Sunlight hits a smooth part of an ocean or lake, and reflects directly back to the sensor, like taking a flash-picture in a mirror. Was it really that much of a mystery?

When Marshak and his colleagues took another look at the Galileo images showing the flashes, they found something that Sagan missed back in 1993: The flashes appeared over land masses as well. And when they looked at the EPIC images, they found flashes over land masses. So a simple explanation like light reflecting off the oceans was no longer in play.

“We found quite a few very bright flashes over land as well.” – Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR Deputy Project Scientist

“We found quite a few very bright flashes over land as well,” he said. “When I first saw it I thought maybe there was some water there, or a lake the sun reflects off of. But the glint is pretty big, so it wasn’t that.”

But something was causing the flashes, something reflective. Marshak and his colleagues, Tamas Varnai of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Alexander Kostinski of Michigan Technological University, thought of other ways that water could cause the flashes.

The primary candidate was ice particles high in Earth’s atmosphere. High-altitude cirrus clouds contain tiny ice platelets that are horizontally aligned almost perfectly. The trio of scientists did some experiments to find the cause of the flashes, and published their results in a new paper published in Geophysical Research Letters.

“Lightning doesn’t care about the sun and EPIC’s location.” – Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR Deputy Project Scientist

As their study details, they first catalogued all of the reflective glints that EPIC found over land; 866 of them in a 14 month period from June 2015 to August 2016. If these flashes were caused by reflection, then they would only appear on locations on the globe where the angle between the Sun and Earth matched the angle between the DSCOVER spacecraft and Earth. As the catalogued the 866 glints, they found that the angle did match.

This ruled out something like lightning as the cause of the flashes. But as they continued their work plotting the angles, they came to another conclusion: the flashes were sunlight reflecting off of horizontal ice crystals in the atmosphere. Other instruments on DSCOVR confirmed that the reflections were coming from high in the atmosphere, rather than from somewhere on the surface.

“The source of the flashes is definitely not on the ground. It’s definitely ice, and most likely solar reflection off of horizontally oriented particles.” -Alexander Marshak, DSCOVR Deputy Project Scientist

Mystery solved. But as is often the case with science, answering one question leads to a couple other questions. Could detecting these glints be used in the study of exoplanets somehow? But that’s one for the space science community to answer.

As for Marshak, he’s an Earth scientist. He’s investigating how common these horizontal ice particles are, and what effect they have on sunlight. If that impact is measurable, then it could be included in climate modelling to try to understand how Earth retains and sheds heat.

Sources:

Ancient Zircons Help Reveal Early Earth Atmosphere

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Roughly 2.4 billion years ago, Earth’s atmosphere underwent a huge change known as the “Great Oxidation Event”. This switch from an oxygen-poor to an oxygen-rich environment may be accountable for giving rise to life. However, scientists are extremely curious about what our atmosphere may have been like not long after our planet formed. Now researchers from the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are using some of the oldest minerals known to exist to help understand what may have occurred some five million years after Earth arose.

For the most part, scientists have theorized that early-Earth atmosphere was dominated by noxious methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia. This highly reduced mixture results in a limited amount of oxygen and has led to a wide variety of theories about how life may have started in such a hostile environment. However, by taking a closer look at ancient minerals for oxidation levels, scientists at Rensselaer have proved the early-Earth atmosphere wasn’t like that at all… but held copious amounts of water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.

“We can now say with some certainty that many scientists studying the origins of life on Earth simply picked the wrong atmosphere,” said Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Science at Rensselaer.

How can they be so sure? Their findings depend on the theory that Earth’s atmosphere was formed volcanically. Each time magma flows to the surface, it releases gases. If it doesn’t come to the top, then it interacts with the surrounding rocks where it cools and becomes a rocky deposit in its own right. These deposits – and their elemental construction – allows science to paint an accurate portrait of the conditions at the time of their formation.

“Most scientists would argue that this outgassing from magma was the main input to the atmosphere,” Watson said. “To understand the nature of the atmosphere ‘in the beginning,’ we needed to determine what gas species were in the magmas supplying the atmosphere.”

One of the most important of all magma components is zircon – a mineral nearly as old as Earth itself. By determining the oxidation levels of the magmas that formed these ancient zircons, scientists are able to deduce how much oxygen was being released into the atmosphere.

“By determining the oxidation state of the magmas that created zircon, we could then determine the types of gases that would eventually make their way into the atmosphere,” said study lead author Dustin Trail, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Astrobiology.

To enable their work, the team set about cooking up magma in a laboratory setting – which led to the creation of an oxidation gauge to assist them in comparing their artificial specimens against natural zircons. Their study also included a watchful eye for a rare Earth metal called cerium that can exist in two oxidation states. By exposing cerium in zircon, the team can be confident the atmosphere was more oxidized after their creation. These new findings point to an atmospheric state more like our present day conditions… setting the stage for a new starting point on which to base life’s beginnings on Earth.

“Our planet is the stage on which all of life has played out,” Watson said. “We can’t even begin to talk about life on Earth until we know what that stage is. And oxygen conditions were vitally important because of how they affect the types of organic molecules that can be formed.”

While “life as we know it” is highly dependent on oxygen, our current atmosphere probably isn’t the ideal model for spawning primordial life. It’s more likely a methane-rich atmosphere might “have much more biologic potential to jump from inorganic compounds to life-supporting amino acids and DNA.” This leaves the door wide open to alternate theories, such as panspermia. But don’t sell the team’s results short. They still reveal the beginning nature of gases here on Earth, even if they don’t solve the riddle of the Great Oxidation Event.

Original Story Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute News Release.

Exosphere

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The Earth’s atmosphere is broken up into several distinct layers. We live down in the troposphere, where the atmosphere is thickest. Above that is the stratosphere, then there’s the mesosphere, thermosphere and finally the exosphere. The top of the exosphere marks the line between the Earth’s atmosphere and interplanetary space.

The exosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. It starts at an altitude of about 500 km and goes out to about 10,000 km. Within this region particles of atmosphere can travel for hundreds of kilometers in a ballistic trajectory before bumping into any other particles of the atmosphere. Particles escape out of the exosphere into deep space.

The lower boundary of the exosphere, where it interacts with the thermosphere is called the thermopause. It starts at an altitude of about 250-500 km, but its height depends on the amount of solar activity. Below the thermopause, particles of the atmosphere have atomic collisions, like what you might find in a balloon. But above the thermopause, this switches over to purely ballistic collisions.

The theoretical top boundary of the exosphere is 190,000 km (half way to the Moon). This is the point at which the solar radiation coming from the Sun overcomes the Earth’s gravitational pull on the atmospheric particles. This has been detected to about 100,000 km from the surface of the Earth. Most scientists consider 10,000 km to be the official boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and interplanetary space.

We have written several articles about the Earth’s atmosphere for Universe Today. Here’s an article about an evaporating extrasolar planet, and this article explains how far away space is.

You can learn more about the layers of the atmosphere, including the exosphere from this page at NASA.

We have recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast talking about the Earth’s (and it’s atmosphere). Check it out here, Episode 51: Earth.