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Research Connects Shuttle Plume to a 1908 Comet Event
June 30, 2009

The mysterious 1908 Tunguska explosion that leveled 830 square miles of Siberian forest was almost certainly caused by a comet entering Earth’s atmosphere, says new Cornell research. The conclusion is supported by an unlikely source: the exhaust plume from the NASA space shuttle launched a century later.

The research, accepted for publication by the journal Geophysical Research Letters, published by the American Geophysical Union, connects the two events by what followed each about a day later: brilliant, night-visible clouds, or noctilucent clouds, that are made up of ice particles and only form at very high altitudes and in extremely cold temperatures.

The researchers contend that the massive amount of water vapor spewed into the atmosphere by the comet’s icy nucleus was caught up in swirling eddies with tremendous energy by a process called two-dimensional turbulence, which explains why the noctilucent clouds formed a day later many thousands of miles away.

Noctilucent clouds are the Earth’s highest clouds, forming naturally in the mesosphere at about 55 miles over the polar regions during the summer months when the mesosphere is around minus 180 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 117 degrees Celsius).

The space shuttle exhaust plume, the researchers say, resembled the water vapor from the comet. A single space shuttle flight injects 300 metric tons of water vapor into the Earth’s thermosphere, and the water particles have been found to travel to the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where they form the clouds after settling into the mesosphere. The thermosphere is the layer of the atmosphere above the mesosphere.

The scientists have attempted to answer how this water vapor traveled so far without scattering and diffusing, as conventional physics would predict.

This “new” physics, the researchers contend, is tied up in counter-rotating eddies with extreme energy. Once the water vapor got caught up in these eddies, the water traveled very quickly — close to 300 feet per second.

The paper is available online.

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