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Shuttle Columbia crew studies mystery of electrical phenomena

HDN | 1/22/2003 12:00:00 AM |

The study of sprites is part of an Israeli experiment known as MEIDEX that includes the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon Sprites and elves dancing on thunder clouds and captured by cameras on the space shuttle Columbia may help scientists crack the

  • The study of sprites is part of an Israeli experiment known as MEIDEX that includes the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon
  • Sprites and elves dancing on thunder clouds and captured by cameras on the space shuttle Columbia may help scientists crack the mystery of recently discovered electrical phenomena usually invisible to the naked eye.

    The sprites, which are red flashes of electricity shooting up from thunderclouds 13 miles (20 km) into the ionosphere, and elves, which are glowing red doughnut shapes radiating 190 miles (300 km), were photographed Sunday by astronaut Dave Brown on the sprite hunt's first orbit.

    Columbia and a crew of seven astronauts are on a 16-day science mission that began Thursday. The study of sprites is part of an Israeli experiment known as MEIDEX that includes the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.

    "This is the first time (we've successfully taken) such images with a calibrated instrument from the shuttle and it's causing really great excitement with our colleagues around the world," said Yoav Yair, project coordinator for Israeli experiments on the shuttle science mission.

    Yair said Brown did not see the luminosities or know that he had captured their images until scientists on the ground downloaded and analyzed the pictures.

    "One has to be extremely lucky to catch because it lasts only 0.1 milliseconds -- less than a thousandth of a second," Yair said. "Luckily, God was on our side this time and we caught one."

    The discovery of sprites in 1989 and elves in 1994 has opened up a new area of study in the field of upper atmospheric physics. Until now, images of them have been limited to those taken from the ground or airplanes.

    The shuttle cameras that captured the flashes are onboard primarily to facilitate the Israeli's Mediterranean-Israeli dust experiment (MEIDEX) designed to study the impact of dust particles on global climate.

    Zev Levin, of Tel Aviv University, who heads up the Israeli experiments, which were originally scheduled to fly in July 2001 but have been delayed by technical and scheduling problems, said that winter is the worst time to be searching for dust storms in the Mediterranean.

    Levin said the team has not yet encountered any dust storms and is instead following plumes of pollutants from Europe wafting over the study area.

    All in all, Yair said, Israeli scientists are "having a great time working with NASA around the clock and getting good scientific data and already exceeding our, I would say, wildest expectations of getting science from this mission."

    Cape Canaveral, Fla. - Reuters

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