Layers of metal discovered in Colorado skies reveal how earth interacts with space

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Boulder lidar system. The word “LIDAR” was created using a flashlight. Credit: Zhibin Yu/CIRES, CU Boulder, Harbin Institute of Technology.

BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) — A recent discovery, located above Colorado’s foothills, has atmospheric scientists excited as it may shed light on how life is supported by space rocks.   

A research group, headed by a professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at CU Boulder, discovered high-altitude metal layers above McMurdo, Antarctica for the first time nearly a decade ago. 

Xinzhao Chu, the professor who led the groundbreaking expedition, recently found the same phenomenon occurring regularly 90-miles above Boulder. 

“Consistent daily patterns seen in our Boulder observations tell us that there are unknown processes at play, a golden opportunity for atmospheric scientists,” said Jackson Jandreau who worked alongside Professor Chu during the study. 

Twice daily, both before dawn and at dusk, the layer of metal and sodium drops through the atmosphere and is observable with the use of lidar technology.

By utilizing “lidar,” which is an extremely sensitive radar-like instrument used to measure metals in the upper atmosphere with photons instead of radio waves, Professor Chu and her team were able to detect a layer of sodium and other metals that entered the atmosphere initially as rocky material from space. 

According to the research team’s findings, the metals and minerals detected are not harmful to humans and can theoretically help support life on the surface. Observing these phenomena can also shed light on how space interacts with the outer layers of the atmosphere. 

The layers that house these interactions between the sun, Earth’s magnetic field, and Earth’s surface is typically not easy to observe. However, by using lidar to study these layers of sodium and metal, scientists could better understand how surface life develops as a result of the introduction of space materials. 

“There are metals in the atmospheres of other planetary bodies, such as Mars, and researchers look for Earth-like features on exoplanets as indicators for hospitable environments,” Chu said. “Can these metal layers be one of these features?” 

The full Geophysical Research Letter can be read in full here.

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