Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Playing PoSSUM: Citizen Scientists Chase Space Clouds with a Canadian Forces Jet and a NASA Balloon

          By Brian Orlotti

A private non-profit group recently concluded a high altitude research project in cooperation with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and has another joint effort planned with the National Research Council (NRC) this fall. This work highlights the increasing role of private groups in supporting space focused scientific research in the face of decreasing government support.

The Summer 2018 edition of the Project PoSSUM News which provides a quarterly overview of PoSSUM activities. To download the complete eight page newsletter, please click on this link. Image c/o Project PoSSUM

From June 29th to July 1st 2018, two members of Project PoSSUM (polar suborbital science in the upper mesosphere), used a CT-155 ‘Hawk’ training aircraft of the RCAF’s 15 Wing at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to study noctilucent clouds.

Noctilucent clouds are the highest clouds in Earth’s atmosphere, forming near an altitude of 83 km above the polar regions during summer. Noctilucent clouds are considered by scientists to be accurate indicators of man-made climate change as well as good analogs for low-density planetary atmospheres like Mars.

Project PoSSUM is a US based 501(c)(3) non-profit research and education group that conducts atmospheric and space technology research as well as various educational outreach programs. Project PoSSUM primarily operates out of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach FL.

The group practices ‘citizen science,’ scientific research conducted in whole or in part by amateur (i.e. non-professional) scientists. Groups like Project PoSSUM contrast with traditional space advocacy groups which enforce a rigid (yet unspoken) caste system relegating non-scientists to menial and subservient roles.

Operating out of Edmonton International Airport, three night flights were conducted along the 56th parallel at altitudes of up to 45,000 ft. The Project PoSSUM team took images of the clouds’ fine structures in the hope that these will reveal more about the highly complex patterns of turbulence and instability in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

PoSSUM members Capt. Theon ‘TK’ Te Koeti (pilot) and Dr. Jason Reimuller (mission specialist) prepare for a noctilucent cloud reserach sortie from Edmonton, AB in a Royal Canadian Air Force CT-155 ‘Hawk’ aircraft earlier this summer. Photo c/o Project PoSSUM.

This research builds upon work done by Project PoSSUM in July 2017 at High Level, Alberta, in which 17 PoSSUM members tested a NASA-funded camera system aboard a Mooney aircraft.

These cameras were the redeployed as part of NASA’s PMC PMC Turbo balloon mission. Launched from Kiruna, Sweden this past July, PMC Turbo is the first dedicated mission to explore the small-scale dynamics of  Earth’s mesosphere as well as the first balloon mission to employ a lidar.

PoSSUM eventually plans to use its instruments on reusable suborbital launch vehicles to build 3D models of the mesosphere at previously unattainable resolutions.

Continuing its Canadian collaborations, a team of PoSSUM scientist-astronaut candidates will, in cooperation with the NRC, test a prototype spacesuit in zero-G in Ottawa from October 15th-19th.

With government space programs’ continuing decline and Canada’s descent to the status of third-rate space power, groups like Project PoSSUM fill an important need. They can cover ‘gaps’ in manpower or skillsets and also serve as a workforce training ground for the blossoming private space industry.

Playing PoSSUM might be just what the doctor ordered.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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