A study of space shuttle plumes in the lower thermosphere

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Abstract

[1] During the space shuttle main engine burn, some 350 t of water vapor are deposited at between 100 and 115 km. Subsequent photodissociation of water produces large plumes of atomic hydrogen that can expand rapidly and extend for thousands of kilometers. From 2002 to 2007, the Global Ultraviolet Imager (GUVI) on NASA's Thermosphere Ionosphere, Mesosphere, Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) satellite imaged many of these hydrogen plumes at Lyman α (121.567 nm) while viewing in the nadir. The images reveal rapid plume expansion and occasional very fast transport to both north and south polar regions. Some plumes persist for up to 6 d. Near-simultaneous direct detections of water vapor were made with the Sounding of the Atmosphere with Broadband Emission Radiometry (SABER) instrument, also on TIMED. We compare the spreading of the hydrogen plume with a two-dimensional model that includes photodissociation as well as both vertical and horizontal diffusion. Molecular diffusion appears to be sufficient to account for the horizontal expansion, although wind shears and turbulent mixing may also contribute. We compare the bulk motion of the observed plumes with wind climatologies derived from satellite observations. The plumes can move much faster than predictions of wind climatologies. But dynamical processes not contained in wind climatologies, such as the quasi-two-day wave, can account for at least some of the high speed observations. The plume phenomena raise a number of important questions about lower thermospheric and mesospheric processes, ranging from dynamics and chemistry to polar mesospheric cloud formation and climatology.

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