No-fly zone: Exploring the uncharted layers of our atmosphere

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By Stephen Battersby

A ROBOTIC arm pokes out of the International Space Station, holding a rack of tiny probes. Gently it pushes them out, two or three at a time, to start their fatal spiral down towards Earth.

It may not sound dramatic, but this moment, scheduled for early 2017, will mark a new era in human exploration. The probes will investigate a forbidden zone surrounding our planet. It’s a realm where planes can’t fly, balloons can’t float, and satellites soon plunge to a fiery end. So seldom have we visited it and so scanty is our knowledge of it that some scientists call it the ignorosphere.

This slice of the atmosphere is, at the same time, forbidden and forbidding. It holds both the coldest and the hottest air on Earth. It hosts elusive, shimmering clouds that can only be seen at night. And its moods can change in an instant, as turbulent winds from lower down mix with plasma arriving from the sun.

This unknown zone increasingly matters to us. We are sending up ever more satellites, which are vulnerable to flare-ups in the ignorosphere. Electrical disturbances in this region can scramble GPS signals and other communications. And its influence may even stretch down to ground level and alter our weather. So we need to understand this rarefied air – and to do so, we must go and explore it.

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The ignorosphere encompasses those in-between altitudes that we find extremely hard to navigate. Above about 50 kilometres – where the stratosphere ends – the air becomes too thin (….)

—Read more here: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23130870-400-nofly-zone-exploring-the-uncharted-layers-of-our-atmosphere/?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#link_time=1471866899


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