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 Noctilucent Cloud Information


Latest NLC Update 2015


[2015 sightings]


Season Alert


Update >

Today's current AIM image below, courtesy Spaceweather.com [+]


 [AIM] [LASP] [Archive]

2015 May 19. 1st satellite detection. NASA's AIM Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere satellite. Orbit 44028. [SpaceWeather] [AIM] [LASP] [Archive] 2015 May 26. 1st radar detection over the United Kingdom. National Environment Research Council Mesosphere-Stratosphere-Troposphere Radar, Aberystwyth, Wales, UK. [SpaceWeather] [NERC] [Wiki] [pdf]
2015 May 25 (but delayed). 1st VHF signal anomaly over the Norway. Mr Rob Stammes of the PolarLightCenter, Lofoten, Norway. [SpaceWeather] [PolarLightCenter] Although the 2015 NLC season was visually common by May 27, personally my 1st NLC of the season was June 6. This terrible image was taken through cloud in central United Kingdom. Congratulations to all lucky viewers!

2015 AIM Most Current Available. (small delay) daily daisy wheel image. NASA's AIM Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere [Archive]. Courtesy: [SpaceWeather] [AIM] [LASP] [Satalite-Image-Archive]

(I'm waiting to put a great picture here, but so far the season has eluded me!!!)



Last Year Updates Information (2014)



NASA: youTube[2014] New: Winter Vortex. NASA: youTube [2013] Early last season.
May 20 2014. 1st auto-remote detection. Dr Peter Dalin, Swedish Institute of Space Physics. [SpaceWeather] [Movie] [SISP] May 24 2014. 1st satellite detection. NASA's AIM Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere satellite. [SpaceWeather] [AIM]


Noctilucent Cloud Season



May - late Aug

NLC from ISS 2003 (Don Pettit NASA) . This picture impressively shows the perspective that Polar Mesospheric Clouds are a polar cap cloud.
Pilot and Webmaster Brian Whittaker regularly witnesses NLC from the Arctic in summer.  [BrianWhittaker.com].
Recent 20 June 2013 comparison between the AIM satellite and an actual observation.  [BrianWhittaker.com].
[AIM imagery courtesy SpaceWeather.com]
Further NLC/PMC reading:
[NASA 2014 Teleconnections - NLC]
[BBC polar Vortex Jan 2014 -above]
[NASA 2013 Early - NLC]
[NASA 2012 Update - NLC]
[LASP Educational Video (music)]
[Shuttle Plume adds to NLC -2011]
[Wiki Noctilucent Clouds NLC]
[Polar Mesospheric Clouds PMC]
[NASA Strange Clouds]
[Shuttle Plume adds to NLC]
[Wiki L-1011/Pegasus/AIM]
[Wiki Nacreous Clouds + PSC]
[Wiki Atmosphere]
[Wiki Troposphere 0-7miles]
[Wiki Tropopause +/- 7miles]
[Wiki Stratosphere 7-30 miles]
[Wiki Stratopause +/- 30miles]
[Wiki Mesosphere 30-50 miles]
[Wiki Mesopause +/- 50miles]
[Wiki Thermosphere 50+ miles]
[Wiki Atmospheric Chemistry]
[NLC -Tom McEwan Homepage]
[NLC -Recent Sightings]
[NLC -Submit your observation]
[NLC -Forum]
[Wiki Cloud Iridescence]
[BrianWhittaker.com images]
[Brian's NLC photo Blog]
Further Rocket reading:
[Wiki Plume]
[NASA Shuttle SRB rockets]
[Wiki Saturn V plume]
[Wiki Rockets]
[Shuttle Plume adds to NLC -2011]
[Shuttle Plume adds to NLC -2003]
[Airborne YouTube STS117]  
[Airborne YouTube STS133]
Volcanic reading:
[Wiki Eruption Column]
[Wiki Volcanic Ash]
[Wiki Stratospheric Aerosols]
[Wiki Volcanic Gasses]
[Wiki Particulate Matter]
[Wiki Aerosols]
[Wiki Sunset]
The Sun Spot Cycle's Maximum peak is 2013 and this should mean a slight reduction in NLC? Increased solar energy is thought to perhaps have a warming influence on the Mesosphere preventing it from getting cool enough to create NLC. Archive Photo: Jack Newton [link].
How will 2013 Solar Max affect NLC? So far, NLC season started one week earlier! [2013 Early YouTube]
Solar activity, indicated by Aurora Borealis (Northern Light), can co-exist with NLC. Photo by Brian Whittaker [link].
Noctilucent Clouds from an airliner.
Southern Noctilucent Clouds (EO)
The giant volcanic eruption of Krakatau in 1883 released considerable ash into the atmosphere affecting sunsets worldwide. The first recorded NLC were seen just 2 years later, but this could be a coincidence from increased observations and interest in the sky. (Wiki)
Volcanic aerosols in the Stratosphere help produce an exaggerated colourful twilight glow called Afterglow. Photo: Brian Whittaker  from Sarychev (Wiki) 2009 at Los Angeles.

Russia's Sarychev Peak 2009 eruption that was spectacularly photographed by the International Space Station as it passed overhead. This animation sequence shows you the true vertical power of an eruption.  (NASA), (Wiki)
Active volcanoes in the solar system? Yes, Jupiter's moon "Io" regularly shoots debris high above the surface. (NASA), (Wiki)
Unrelated, but perhaps interesting. On Saturn's moon Enceladus there are giant geysers of water vapor shooting up over 100 km. How would that look from the ground? (Wiki) (NASA) (Update)
Of interest, lower Nacreous Clouds are related to Ozone depletion in the stratosphere. NASA Ozone red from space [layer] [NASA] .The Aura satellite for the Ozone layer can actually detect NLC as well: [Aura].

NLC use micro-meteorite debris from meteor showers as condensation nuclei. Meteor showers are clouds of dust left by comets tails. Did you know that Comet Ison is coming? It will be visible at the end of 2013 and may be spectacular! [more]
Noctilucent Clouds over Toronto Canada? A dramatic simulation using two airborne images for the purposes of creating enthusiasm and discussion about NLC. [more]
Noctilucent Clouds from an airliner, looking north.
"Space Clouds"
Space Clouds and "Night Clouds" are just alternative slang names for Noctilucent Clouds NLC [Wiki]. They are extremely high altitude wispy clouds that are so thin and difficult to see that you must observe them in twilight, practically at night with the sun is shining only upon them from behind because of their great altitude. They are thin and wavy, appearing like some Cirrus Clouds, but are so faint that they are never visible in the day. Maximized with the sun about 11 below the horizon they can appear quite bright when they are there, however they are not always present. They come and go from night to night or even hour to hour. The term "Noctilucent" is used because they shine bluish-white while the sky is dark with stars visible above. In other words, they are (in Latin) "Luminous at Night". There is also an annual season from late May until mid August, and peaking between mid June and mid July for the Northern Hemisphere. From an aircraft you can see more clearly that they are often in giant clumps many hundreds of miles apart, separated by nothing. They are really simply southward extensions from a giant pole cloud region where they are officially known as Polar Mesospheric Clouds PMC [Wiki]. They are about 250,000 to 280,000 feet high (50 miles) and so are visible from many miles away or over the horizon. Winds and atmospheric oscillations at that great altitude may make the clouds move as fast as an aircraft but they may appear visually stationary because they are so far away. Regardless, with a bright display overhead, you will feel humbled that you are seeing something at an almost global scale. Ideally, you should also be north of about 50'N latitude, but obviously not too far north because you need the sky to be unaffected by the bright arctic midnight sun. A good northern view right down to the horizon will also help to spot them.  Other generalized "Space Clouds" include Rocket Exhaust plumes and Meteor Trains [more], but this article is about NLC/PMC. Enjoy. (more below) .
Noctilucent Clouds towering above, as seen from the cockpit of a Boeing 747.
What makes a Noctilucent Cloud appear? You need 4 things. 1) enough moisture, 2) a cool enough temperature, 3) condensation nuclei, and 4) be in the right place at the right time to see them. Points one and two are related because the high altitude mesosphere temperature doesn't have to be as cool if the moisture is higher.  Apparently they were first documented in 1885 after the exceptionally large eruption of Krakatau in 1883 that possibly would have put some moisture into the extreme heights of the stratosphere and beyond into the mesosphere. NASA has also detected that some Space Shuttle exhausts also contributes to moisture at this level. More recently Chemists, of course, have figured out that Earth's natural and man-made CH4 Methane Gas [Wiki] converts to H2O water by natural cosmic radiation [CH4-NASA] in the Mesosphere which leads a constant natural source of moisture for NLC. Of interest to pilots (to be discussed in the future?) will be the rumoured top secret US Aurora [Wiki] hypersonic spy plane, which could have methane powered engines, but probably doesn't exist! The coolest temperature of the entire planet Earth also happens to be at this high level of about 280,000 feet which is the top of the Mesosphere, called the Mesopause. Here temperatures can drop to below -100 C when the atmosphere is expanded by lower-level warming temperature effects of summer. Further study will also explain their coloration with terrestrial Gravity waves [Wiki]. Incidentally, yes, that does mean that there is also a theoretical additional cooling from the moon due to tidal forces on the atmosphere.
Latest NASA video explaining NLC:
Great video from NASA explaining NLC. "NASA Science News"  (Link).

All weather enthusiasts know the basic principles of precipitation, super-cooled water droplets, and condensation nuclei [CCN] from pollutants and natural aerosols. But in turns out the primary source of condensation nuclei up at Noctilucent Cloud height are thought to be some of the 100 tons of Micrometeorites and Cosmic Dust  that the Earth collects every day. It turns out that there is a lot of dust out there in space. Perhaps you have seen some space dust being produced if you have ever seen the dust tail from a Comet? NLC research is on going.

How will the Russian Chelybinsk Meteor effect 2013 NLC?
More about the Russian Meteor of 2013  (Link).
Orbital Science [OS] launched the AIM satellite  [AIM] using the airborne Pegasus-XL rocket to put it in high polar orbit to learn more about NLC's water, temp, and dust. From these observations, NASA is confident to say that micrometeors are the primary condensation nuclei and compose of about 3% of any NLC crystal [NASA-2012News]. Their small size also contributes to the bluish appearing color since smaller particles scatter blue light the most. (You may have noticed that larger particles, like smoke, produce a reddish color).  Please watch the wonderful NASA video embedded above courtesy of YouTube (May not work in some countries) . Incidentally, Pegasus also put up a Canadian satellite [ACE] that studies atmospheric ozone, related to the much lower Nacreous Clouds (more below).
NASA's "Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere" AIM project logo. Websites [NASA] [HamptonU] [LASP] [wiki]. AIM updated daily maps. [current-lower-left]. Artist illustration showing AIM satellite analysing atmosphere in the Polar Mesospheric Cloud PMC region. Cloud Images: [CIPS] [CIPS+], Occultation: [SOFIE], Cosmic: [CDE]. Composite overlay image showing full Polar Mesospheric Cloud PMC over north polar region. Note Greenland. [Shuttle] [more]. Older: [Aura-similar]. Composite "daisy" image showing full Polar Mesospheric Cloud PMC over north pole and extensions seen as Noctilucent Clouds NLC. [more]. [current-lower-left].

The University of British Columbia has a giant 6m rotating liquid mercury mirror called the LZT "Liquid Zenith Telescope" which is currently conducting adaptive optic technology for the Thirty Meter Telescope project. As part of their research overseen by Prof Paul Hickson, they have been able to create a Lidar (light Radar) using a powerful laser which excites a Sodium Atom layer left by micro-meteor vaporization. Although their images do not directly show NLC, they clearly show the vortexes in the Mesosphere which can lead to those wavy shapes and patterns seen within them.
Meteor dust helps form NLC. Photo: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser.
A Lidar shows the layering of Sodium Atoms, from constant micro-meteor vaporization, in the Mesosphere and their variation in height with occasional turbulent vortices. Although these are not NLC, they clearly illustrate the atmospheric properties at these levels which would otherwise be invisible.  [LZT], [More] T Pfrommer, P Hickson, UBC
Here are more Noctilucent Clouds (NLC) photographed by an astronaut from the International Space Station (ISS) in space on 13 June 2012 over Asia [Photo-NASA]. On the same day (local time) I photographed NLC over Canada which is referenced in the same NASA article [Photo-BrianWhittaker]
Here is an amazing computer modelling of instability dynamics at NLC levels put together by some of the scientist associated with Project PoSSUM [more]. Refinement of this data is one of their goals for 2014.]
The "Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere" PoSSUM project logo [PoSSUM]. Lead by pilot Dr Jason Reimuller [JR] of Integrated Spaceflight Services [more]. XCOR's 2-seat Lynx space plane takes off and lands from a normal runway, perfect for NLC research from Sweden's Esrange Space Centre which at 67'N is underneath seasonal NLC. [XCOR] [Lynx] [wiki] [Esrange]. Yes, Lynx is real! Website's author Brian Whittaker [BW] in Lynx pre-prototype at Mojave, California 2011. The Lynx may be ready for NLC research for summer 2014 [soon]. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 may serve as an alternative vehicle for the Project Possum. In April 2013 it fired its engines for the first time in flight. [VG] [wiki] [BBC].

Still trying to see NLC? It turns out that it is rather tricky to actually see Noctilucent Clouds. The season is only 3 months from late May until mid August. You need clear skies which are often obscured by low maritime cloud in the remote upper Arctic. You must be far enough north, usually well above 50, which rules out most of the world's population. NLC are only exceptionally visible from America or London and it is quite likely you will be in bed already on the day it occurs.  Northern Canadians, Scots, Scandinavians, Russians and Alaskans share an advantage. If you are too far north, you can't see them because it doesn't get dark. The sun needs to be well below the horizon which happens to be very late at night when most of us are asleep. If everything is working for you, then you still have to be in the right place at the right time with a display occurring. Aircrew have the advantage if you can get a twilight route on a great circle track between Europe and N. America in season.

Modern digital cameras can make NLC photography pretty easy. Hold the camera still and click in "Automatic" for starters. Other things to try include: turn your flash off, support camera still or use a tripod, manually focus to infinity, turn night mode on, activate noise reduction, compensate exposure +/- 1 or 2 as required, or use manual settings. You may be surprised to get a great picture, even possibly on a smart-phone or iPad!

Other interesting high altitude clouds are Nacreous Clouds, also known as Polar Stratospheric Clouds (PSC), which are 50,000 to 80,000 feet high. They are a rare stratospheric cloud which is known as the "Mother of Pearl" cloud because of the iridescent multi-color look that it has. They are most common at winter in the extreme far south over Antarctica where temperatures are coolest and only a handful of researchers can witness them. However, they can rarely appear in the high northern Arctic in winter often associated with a stratospheric wave which creates a further dip in temperature allowing them to form. Temperatures must be below -78 C. Opposite to NLC, these PSC clouds are a winter phenomena that increase with the lack of sunlight in the arctic and cooling during winter. In Spring, as the sun first emerges, very quickly a chemical reaction related to the evaporation of these clouds causes ozone depletion and creates the infamous Ozone Holes (Ozone Hole) that allow ultra violet radiation (UV) to the surface. Global warming at Earth's surface causes atmospheric expansion and cooling at high altitudes which should cause more PSCs in the future.

 Of interest, in the tropics, a completely unrelated but similar looking (and smaller) "Mother of Pearl" cloud may sometimes be witnessed when a giant thunderstorm manages to punch into the stratosphere. Occasionally, iridescent Pileus Cap Cloud [more] may be seen.

A normal cloud is made from the condensation of water vapour around a nucleus of some sort. There is no shortage of pollutants, dusts, volcanic aerosols, or pollens in the lower atmosphere and this occurs quite naturally. However, the Mesosphere is exceptionally clean and extremely dry making it absolutely impossible for traditional clouds to form. Some exceptions to the Day-to-Day rules needs to be understood and it includes Meteors, Rocket Exhaust, Explosive Volcanoes, and most likely Global Warming chemistry. Basically, for Noctilucent Clouds to form we first need to get Water Vapour and Condensation Nuclei up 50 miles above the Earth.

Volcanoes are a traditional source of both Water Vapour and Condensation Nuclei, making the super eruption of Krakatau in 1883 the suspected first cause of NLC. Much of the visible plume during an eruption consists of water vapor, like cloud, which will quickly evaporate back into the atmosphere. Likewise, most of the ash from the dense ash plume [Wiki] will fall nearby, but other smaller aerosols will remain aloft. These smaller particles may be suspended for thousands of miles, and others in the upper atmosphere will simply float around the world for many weeks or months! Essentially there are two main types of suspended volcanic material that will stay visible, fine "Tephra" Ash (small rock or glass particles) and Sulfur Dioxide SO2 gas which forms Sulfate Aerosols. The ash and ash-aerosols can be visible for many days looking similar to a thinning smog and stay suspended for weeks contributing to beautiful sunsets. They vary in size and fall quicker with weight, proportionate to size. The Sulfate Aerosols can also become visible and look similar to high thin Cirrus Clouds for many days, but their affects in the Stratosphere can persist for several years causing cooling of the Earth's climate. Both spread and dissipate rather gradually traveling as clouds in the wind, like a giant swarm.

Big eruptions are in the magnitude of one every couple of years. Astronauts filmed a spectacular eruption on 12 June 2009 from the International Space Station of Russia's Sarychev Peak [Must-see 6MB QuickTime] [NASA] [Wiki] [map]. This eruption punched well through the Tropopause into the Stratosphere where the particles traveled all around the world, quite possibly contributing to the unstable weather in the northern hemisphere 2010/11. One product of that eruption was a high Stratospheric bluish SO2 cloud that was visible everywhere in the mid-northern hemisphere shortly afterwards. Eventually the lower ash also spread out and formed a marked haze layer at the Tropopause everywhere in the northern hemisphere that could be easily seen on the Earth's limb in twilight. Weeks later, sunsets and sunrises were still showing an obviously exaggerated afterglow due to this upper ash layer, as in the photo to the left from Los Angeles, USA. The volcanoes near the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula and Alaska's Aleutian Islands are remarkably active. Historically they don't make the news because they are so remote, but as you can see, they still affect the rest of the world. Further away in the Philippians in 1991 Mt. Pinatubo [Wiki] had an even larger eruption which also caused beautiful sunsets in North America and Europe. Even more spectacular was the legendary 1883 eruption of Krakatau [Wiki] where global visual and climatic effects lasted several years. Remember that Noctilucent Clouds, discussed above, were first documented after Krakatau's extreme eruption. You may wish to also read about "1816 -the Year with out a Summer" [wiki] caused by 1815's Mount Tambora [wiki] eruption .

Volcanic Stratospheric sulfur aerosols from the Sarychev Volcano (2009) at 55,000 feet (10 miles) over the mid-Atlantic Ocean well above commercial aviation traffic. These particle are 40 miles lower than NLC (Wiki.-SO2)

Space Shuttle plume changing as it gets higher, passing through the lower Troposphere into the Stratosphere at about 7 miles altitude, then into the Mesosphere at about 30 miles. STS-120. 23 Oct 2007. Photo: Brian Whittaker
 Lingering high altitude Space Shuttle exhaust plume. STS-117. 8 June 2007. Photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett [NASA

Rockets are also responsible for both Water Vapor and Condensation Nuclei in the upper Mesosphere. Big rockets like the old Saturn V or Space Shuttle could initially burn 15 tons of fuel in a second on takeoff. That one second of fuel is enough to keep a Boeing 747 jumbo jet up in the air for 1 1/2 hours, so obviously there is going to be some kind of plume (Wiki) left behind. In 6 second, its the same amount of fuel for a jumbo jet to go from Los Angeles to London! The fascination with plumes is that it allows you to briefly comprehend the height and distance of the rocket that you would otherwise have no reference to judge. For just few minutes things that are truly far away seem incredibly close, before our perspective returns to its domestic normality. It gives us a chance to perceive that space is very far away, yet incredibly close at the same time.

For the foreseeable future, plumes are a required part of getting into space. The only way to get a payload up there is to exert a huge amount of energy which requires rocket engines. Solid fuel rockets, such as those attached to the Shuttle, are even more efficient. Its ironic that although the Space Shuttle has done enormous work researching the Ozone layer [Ozone], it has also contributed to its demise [Rockets]. Its plume has provided aerosols that have assisted Stratospheric Cloud "Nacreous Cloud" creation and ozone depletion. Further, its exhaust has also added moisture to help form the much higher Mesospheric Clouds "Noctilucent Clouds" [Shuttle NLC]. All rockets contribute to moisture at these high altitudes, but the Space Shuttle was unique because of its huge size.

Space Shuttle STS-120 launch 23 Oct 2007. Photo Brian Whittaker
Comet Hale Bopp in 1997. Photo Jack Newton


SpaceClouds.info Gallery
To get a GREAT picture you need: 1) an uncommonly great display, 2) clear non-hazy skies down to the horizon, 3) an area with an unobstructed visible northern horizon, 4) a night capable camera with tripod, 5) and be awake. If observing Noctilucent Clouds can be illusive, then a you can appreciate that obtaining a great picture is even more so. I had to wait years to get my first GOOD photos. Incidentally, Digital Cameras take great NLC images! Even small pocket Digitals on automatic (preferably manually focussed to infinity) will be impressive for a bright display. Most any photo software can enhance NLC amazingly.

Aircraft are far below these majestic clouds.   Aurora can be active at the same time as NLC.
Time exposures from the ground using tripod.   A great night to fly over the Arctic.
NLC have been seen as far south as Colorado
The city of Denver, Colorado with NLC.
Fine fish-bone patterns are fascinating to see. Advert =>
NLC are simply fascinating!   NLC are simply fascinating!
NLC are simply fascinating!   NLC are simply fascinating!
NLC are simply fascinating!


NLC are simply fascinating!
Beautiful shapes can fill the sky which can change appearance over minutes.   Meteor Trains (smoke) creates the condensation nuclei for NLC to form.
Looking away from sun to see NLC is rare. Advert =>

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