Electric blue clouds captured by camera over Arctic by NASA balloon mission

A NASA balloon mission over the Arctic this summer captured rare images of electric blue clouds 50 miles above the Earth in the mesosphere.

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The rare clouds are called noctilucent clouds or polar mesospheric clouds, PMCs for short.

Scientists hope the data from the mission will help further understanding of turbulence in the atmosphere, and in oceans, lakes and other planetary atmospheres. It may even help improve weather forecasting.

"From what we've seen so far, we expect to have a really spectacular dataset from this mission," the principal investigator of the PMC Turbo mission, Dave Fritts, said.

“Our cameras were likely able to capture some really interesting events and we hope will provide new insights into these complex dynamics,” Fritts said.

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The PMC Turbo balloon payload was equipped with seven specially designed imaging systems to observe the clouds and during its flight, cameras aboard the balloon captured 6 million high-resolution images, NASA officials said in a press release.

The noctilucent or electric blue clouds turn into ice crystals on tiny meteor remnants in the upper atmosphere resulting in brilliant blue rippling clouds that are visible in the summer after the sun sets in polar regions.

Because the clouds are affected by atmospheric gravity waves, researchers hope that learning about the causes and effects of the turbulence there will help them better understand the upper atmosphere and other areas, too, scientists said.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to visualize the flow of energy from larger gravity waves to smaller flow instabilities and turbulence in the upper atmosphere,” Fritts said. “At these altitudes you can literally see the gravity waves breaking — like ocean waves on the beach — and cascading to turbulence.”

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The new data should ultimately help with weather forecasting models, too.

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