These Electric Blue Clouds Are Made from Ice Crystals and Meteor Debris

Get ready for some atmospheric eye candy, because NASA has unveiled gorgeous new footage of high-altitude clouds that ripple with intense electric blue colors. Known as polar mesospheric clouds (PMCs), these mesmerizing structures form over the poles during the summer, and are made of ice crystals that condense around tiny meteor fragments in the upper atmosphere.

On Thursday, NASA released videos and images captured by the PMC Turbo mission balloon, which was launched from Esrange, Sweden, on July 8. The balloon ascended 50 miles to the stratosphere and floated west over the Arctic Circle for five days, taking roughly 6 million high-resolution images of the PMCs before it landed in Western Nunavut, Canada.

Video of the launch picks up a wistful off-camera farewell from one of the scientists, who tells the aerial probe, “see you in Canada.” If all goes to plan, the PMC Turbo group hopes to fly another balloon over Antarctica in December, to record PMCs at the south pole.

As if it isn’t wild enough that these clouds are made of sparkling crystallized ice and alien rock debris, PMCs are also sculpted by a phenomenon called atmospheric gravity waves. Though they have similar names, these are not the same as gravitational waves, which are a cosmic distortion of space time. Gravity waves are formed when a fluid medium, like water or air masses, are disrupted from equilibrium by interaction with landscapes and other external forces.

The PMC Turbo balloon monitored how gravity waves transferred energy to PMCs from the lower atmosphere. This research could be useful for understanding turbulence—not just the kind that drives fear into the heart of nervous fliers, but turbulent forces in any medium, and on any planet.

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“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,” Dave Fritts, principal investigator of the PMC Turbo mission, said in a statement. “At these altitudes you can literally see the gravity waves breaking—like ocean waves on the beach—and cascading to turbulence.”

“From what we’ve seen so far, we expect to have a really spectacular dataset from this mission,” he noted. “Our cameras were likely able to capture some really interesting events and we hope will provide new insights into these complex dynamics.”

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