NRL Scientists Search for "Magic" Dust

2/10/2005 - 7-05r
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You have probably seen shooting stars, or meteors, in the night sky, but have you ever wondered what happens to the meteoric material after it burns? Scientists in the Naval Research Laboratory's Space Science Division (SSD) are attempting to find out by directly sampling the smoke products thought to be produced by meteors as they burn. The project is called MAGIC: Mesospheric Aerosol: Genesis, Interaction and Composition.

Current theory suggests that up to 44 tons of small, grain-sized meteors burn or "ablate" in the upper atmosphere each day. It is thought that the products of this ablation process are even smaller, nanometer-sized, smoke particles (1/1000th the size of beach sand grains), which form a layer in the atmospheric region known as the mesosphere (50-90 km altitude). In turn these smoke particles are believed to be responsible for the nucleation of the mysterious and beautiful summertime phenomenon known as noctilucent clouds. These smoke particles may also be transported to lower altitudes in the atmosphere, such as the stratosphere (15-50 km altitude) where they may play a role in seeding polar stratospheric clouds, believed to be implicated in polar ozone depletion. Given the potential significance of these particles, it is surprising that they have never actually been detected. Indeed, the acronym for the NRL experiment, MAGIC, is a play on the comment of one scientist who termed these particles "magic dust".

In order to collect the suspected particles, an instrument was developed that is designed to be carried by rocket through the mesosphere. This instrument consists of a number of pins, which project out in front of the aerodynamic shock wave formed by the rocket. On the end of each of these pins is a transmission electron microscopy (TEM) grid that captures particles. The pins are extended in turn as the rocket moves through the mesosphere, and each pin is then retracted into the detector housing and sealed for eventual ground-based analysis.

At 5:27 a.m. Swedish local time on January 10, an Improved Orion rocket carried the MAGIC instrument to a height of 95 km, along with other instruments developed by Stockholm University and the University of Colorado for measuring the ambient water vapor, temperature and charge particles. The payload was subsequently recovered and will be returned to the United States for analysis at NRL. A second flight of MAGIC is planned for March from Wallops Island, Virginia.

NRL's Dr. Frank Giovane and Stockholm University's Dr. Jorg Gumbel designed the MAGIC experiment, while Dr. Gumbel was a visiting scientist at NRL. Its development was funded by NASA's Office of Space Science NDPR S-06215-G in response to a Geospace Sciences, Low Cost Access to Space Section solicitation. The development team at NRL was led Dr. Tomas Waldemarsson, and the engineers Layne Marlin and John Moser. The scientific team is headed by NRL's Dr. David Siskind and involves scientists from the United States, Sweden, Germany, and England. The rocket was provided through funding from the Swedish National Space Board and supported by the University of Stockholm and the Swedish Space Corporation.

A research team member holds an individual "MAGIC" detector. The grids which collect the nanometer sized dust particles are extended from the cyclindrical probe in his hand. The Swedish rocket, upon which MAGIC flew, as it was recovered in the snowfields of northern Sweden. If you look closely you can see the red parachute in the background.

About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory provides the advanced scientific capabilities required to bolster our country's position of global naval leadership. The Laboratory, with a total complement of approximately 2,500 personnel, is located in southwest Washington, D.C., with other major sites at the Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Monterey, Calif. NRL has served the Navy and the nation for over 90 years and continues to advance research further than you can imagine. For more information, visit the NRL website or join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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