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Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) Presented at the Alaska Math Science Conference Fairbanks, Alaska, October 2004 Outreach Contacts: Dianne Q. Robinson, Barbara H. Maggi,

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Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM)

Presented at the

Alaska Math Science Conference

Fairbanks, Alaska, October 2004

Outreach Contacts:

Dianne Q. Robinson,

Barbara H. Maggi,


What is AIM? AIM is a NASA space mission:

  • Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere, or “AIM”
  • The Principal Investigator, is James M. Russell III, from Hampton University
  • What will the mission study? It will study the highest clouds in earth’s atmosphere, clouds on the edge of space

What are these clouds called? Because the clouds seem to glow at night they are often called “Noctilucent” clouds, or NLCs.

  • The word Noctilucent means “night-shining”.

When can they be seen?

  • Unlike other clouds, these clouds can only be seen near dawn and dusk, when the sun is just below the horizon and the sky is dark or in twilight.

clouds at the edge of space

  • Where are these clouds located?
  • Unlike most clouds that form up to 5 miles above the surface of the earth, these clouds are 50 miles high in a layer of the atmosphere called the mesosphere.

At what latitude are they usually seen?

  • They usually form only at high latitudes near the north and southpoles. In recent years, however, many observers have reported seeing NLCs at lower latitudes, even as low as 40°N in the continental United States, in Utah and Colorado. They have been increasing over the past 23 years.
  • They were first reported in 1885!

Tom Eklund, July 28, 2001, Valkeakoski, Finland

  • Is there another name for NLC’s – Scientists also call these clouds “polar mesospheric clouds”, or PMCs
  • Ground observers call them Noctilucent or “night shining” Clouds (NLCs)
  • Satellite observers call them Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs)

PMC’s can be seen from Space

This photo of electric blue PMC’s was taken by the crew on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo credit: Don Pettit and NASA TV.

Click here for a story about NLC’s observed on the ISS


Cold temperatures, H2O (water) and particles appear to be essential for PMC formation.

  • What are these clouds made of?
  • Frozen water, or ice crystals.

NLCs display complicated structure driven by atmospheric dynamics



Timo Leponiemi, 2001


What do scientists and amateur observers say about NLC’s?

  • They seem to be
  • 1) getting brighter over time
  • 2) there are more of them
  • 3) they appear to be moving toward the equator.
  • Why is this happening? Scientists do not understand why this is happening. They want to determine if these changes are caused by
    • natural variations in the earth’s atmosphere,
    • or if they are
    • influenced by human activities

Instrument #1 is called CIPS; it will take pictures of the clouds to determine when and where they form, and what they look like. It will also be used to determine the size of the particles.

The CIPSinstrument: CloudImaging and ParticleSize Experiment

AIM will have 3 instruments on board


Instrument #2 is called SOFIE, it will measure the PMCs, the temperature of the mesosphere and how much water vapor is present, to determine what combination of these is necessary to freeze the water into ice crystals that form PMCs. It will also be used to determine the size of the particles.

This instrument will also measure the amounts of other gases to tell scientists more about the chemistry and movement of air in the mesosphere that might lead to cloud formation or evaporation

TheSOFIE instrument:Solar Occultation forIce Experiment


3) The third instrument, is called CDE, it measures how much cosmic dust enters the earth’s atmosphere.

This is important because scientists wish to find out the origins of tiny particles needed to provide surfaces on which water vapor condenses and freezes to form the PMCs.

The CDE instrument: CosmicDust Experiment



The overall goal of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) experiment is to resolve why Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs) form and why they vary.

In the end, this will provide the basis for study of long term variability in the mesospheric climate and its relationship to global change.


Summary :

  • What are Noctilucent or "night shining" clouds?
    • They are the highest altitude clouds in our atmosphere ( ~ 83 km).
    • They form at coldest place on Earth (-90o C ) in polar summers.
    • They were first reported in 1885.
    • They have been increasing over the past 30 years, they are becoming brighter and they are moving toward the equator.



AIM Education and Public Outreach Programs (EPO)

  • Five components of the EPO include:
  • Website – which includes interactive learning activities
  • NASA CONNECT Video Production
  • 2 Teacher Workshops in Alaska (Yrs. 2006 & 2007)
  • GLOBE data entry for NLC’s
  • PBS Production on stories of the night sky




AIM Outreach team will partner with NASA CONNECT to produce an education video

  • These productions reach approximately 8 million students worldwide
  • Targets students in grades 5-8
  • Includes:
    • web activity,
    • teacher’s guide
    • and lesson plans
    • sometimes a “live” event with scientists, teachers, and students


2 Lead & 20 Regional Educator Workshops

  • 2 Lead Educator Workshops - (Yr. 2006) and (Yr. 2007)
    • Location – Alaska where NLC observation is possible
    • 10 days – 7 days in Anchorage, 3 days on Kenai Peninsula
    • Team approach - 10 teams each year (3 persons per team) – (2 teachers & 1 administrator per team) - 60 Lead educators over 2 years
    • National selection - 5 teams will be selected from rural Alaska & 5 teams from urban areas with a high concentrations of minority students
    • 4 Underserved populations – Urban populations with high concentrations of African American students. Rural populations including Native Americans and Native Hawaiian students.
    • Regionals- Lead teachers will conduct regional workshops in their areas



  • Through the AIM mission, Hampton University is working with GLOBE to develop a special protocol / measurement for NLC data to be entered at GLOBE’s website.


  • A worldwide hands-on inquiry-based environmental science & education program (over 14,000 schools & 24,000 teachers trained).
  • GLOBE students collect data according to established protocols & enter results into a central database for use by scientists & students
  • Primary sponsors are NASA, The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. State Department.
  • Internationally, GLOBE is a partnership between the United States and 105 other countries.

AIM partners with PBS in the production of a video on NLC’s and native stories of the night sky.


Quite rare image of bright Noctilucent clouds behind a close-up of an Airbus A-330 on its way between New York and Ireland. Time exposure shows some motion of jet. June 2004.


AIM Education & Public Outreach

Outreach Contacts:

Dianne Q. Robinson,

Barbara H. Maggi,