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University of Alaska Fairbanks professor partners with NASA for atmosphere experiment

Published: Dec. 15, 2021 at 4:55 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - A University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Professor collaborated with NASA to conduct an atmospheric experiment.

Mark Conde, Professor of Physics with UAF led the project to launch a sounding rocket into the atmosphere.

“The basic problem that we’re looking at is that at high altitudes - and by high altitudes I mean 400 kilometers above the surface of the earth - spacecraft have found that in that sort of high altitude there’s an increase of what we call a mass density of the air,” Conde explained. “The number of kilograms of mass per cubic meter in the air... there’s a region where the air density is increased, and so when the satellite passes through it, it experiences increased aerodynamic drag and it kind of slows down.”

Conde continued, “But the problem is, if you have this extra mass that’s up at 400 kilometers altitude, somehow you’ve got to support it, you’ve got to stop it from falling down The sort of buoyancy balance that enables the atmosphere to normally be stable is fine, but if you perturb that in one location, something has to support it - and while we’re seeing signatures of the increased mass itself, no one has ever observed the signatures of any other things that are different in that region to help us understand what’s actually supporting that extra mass.”

Along with NASA, Conde collaborated with several other schools and organizations across the world for this mission.

“We collaborated with NASA and with their sounding rocket contractors to provide the mission itself,” Conde elaborated. “Aboard that [rocket], we had a number of instruments and facilities for measuring conditions. So I was collaborating with the University of Calgary, with the University of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College, and Clemson University to provide payload instruments and payload systems that we would use to make our measurements.”

While the analysis of the data is still in the early stages, there are a few theories as to what could be responsible for supporting this dense pocket in the atmosphere.

“The best possible solution to this perhaps lies in the idea that the mechanisms that are doing the work are occurring on a small scale, scales that have not been resolved in the past,” Conde continued. “So in a lot of situations in science, you imagine there are a whole lot of small ripples. If you average those out, they’ll average to nothing. But there are certain processes in science - one of which might be the deposition of heat - [and] even if that’s just occurring in little tiny patches, all of those little tiny patches don’t average to zero, they will add up. So things that happen can be both positive and negative, and can average to zero. So small things don’t matter. But things that always add together, such as little regions of local heating, they don’t cancel out and they may add up to the final answer even though each of the individual pieces are too small to see.”

According to Conde, the mission was also a valuable opportunity for the students involved. “This is a mission that allowed a lot of students to work on it, from instruments, to going into the field,” he said, “and it’s a really unique and special thing that NASA does. It allows us to bring the students on board, take a bit of risk - and in this case I think it really has paid off because we got the payload to work beautifully, we launched a beautiful event, and everything looks fantastic at the moment. That’s really what the program is hoping to do is every so often, even though we’re taking a little bit of risk with some of these missions, 80% of the time it pays off and you get a good result. So lots of students have had a chance to see some big science, and that’s been great.”

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