Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Halos from deep space

Now don't get too excited, it's not the news of first exoplanet halo observation. Instead, a space craft has observed halos on Earth - from deep space, 1,5 million kilometers from Earth.
NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory, (DSCOVR) is located at first Lagrangian point. It's 1,5 million km from Earth, between Earth and the Sun. It takes hourly (or every two hours, depending on time of year) a picture of sunlit Earth with its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC). Some of these pictures show a bright glint, which was initially thought to be solar reflection from still ocean surface but soon discovered appearing on land areas too. Size of the glint was too big to be caused by lakes. An idea of horizontally oriented ice crystals in upper atmosphere as a reflecting surface was introduced and challenged with series of tests. It proved to be a winning theory. One of the tests was to study whether the angle between the Sun and Earth is the same as the angle between the spacecraft and Earth on the location of the glint. And it was a match for every glint recorded. So, the reflection from ice crystals can be regarded as a halo, namely a subsun. With a very maximum Sun elevation.

One might think that 1,5 million kilometers is a record breaking distance to observe halo's, but while investigating the glints NASA scientists found out that similar glints were noticed in pictures taken by Galileo spacecraft back in 1993, when it was on its way to study Jupiter and its moons. Galileo took the pictures at 2,08 million km distance from Earth. Originally glints recorded by Galileo were reported to be seen only over oceans, not over land, but that was a mistake. When inspected again, Galileo footage clearly shows glints also over land areas.

Not only being a curiosity for halo enthusiasts, detecting similar glints could be used to study exoplanets. If exo can produce halos it could be a sign of water in its atmosphere and that can give a hint about planets habitability. Hubble Space telescope successor, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is planned to be launched in October 2018. It will be stationed at second Lagrangian point, so observing subsun on Earth is impossible for JWST, but maybe it is capable of spotting extra Terrestrial halos? Or maybe we need to wait for the next generation telescope for that. But perhaps, some day this articles header can be re-used, having a slightly more exciting meaning.

The original article from American Geophysical Union (AGU): Ice particles in Earth’s atmosphere create bright flashes seen from space 


  1. Found some history on the issue: Können and Zwart wrote in 1975 an article "The Subsun on Satellite Pictures".

    1. Nice find, Marko! There's a crucial difference between 70's case and more recent cases. In 1975 a halo phenomenon was anticipated (and found) by halo enthusiasts. In 1993 phenomenon was found by non-halo enthusiasts and left without correct explanation. While writing the article, I kept thinking, that if those pictures were happened to be seen by some halo addict, the "mystery" would have been solved immediately ;)