Noctilucent Clouds Finland 7-28-2001
© Tom Eklund/Daily PressNoctilucent (NLC) or "night-shining" clouds that HU and NASA are studying.
Hampton University has received a $6.3 million contract extension from NASA to continue researching mysterious noctilucent, or "night-shining" clouds in Earth's polar regions and their relationship to climate change.

NASA originally gave HU $140 million in 2002 to spearhead its proposed Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere satellite mission The university launched the satellite in April 2007. It's now in polar orbit to collect images and data about the noctilucent clouds, which are formed by ice and only seen from the ground about an hour after sunset or an hour before sunrise.

This is the university's second multi-million dollar contract extension since the launch. In December, it received $10.2 million to extend the project through September 2012. So far the project has totaled $156.5 million.

The latest $6.3 million extension will allow HU to further track the clouds through the 11-year solar cycle, said James Russell, co-director of the school's Center for Atmospheric Sciences and principal investigator of the mission.

HU is studying the clouds to better understand why the form and to determine if there is any connection between them and global warming, Russell said. The clouds have gotten brighter and occurred more frequently over the last 27 years.

The extension will allow HU to continue the satellite mission through September 2014. HU will request another extension so it can study the clouds through a full solar cycle ending in about 2018, he said.

So far, the satellite has provided a global-scale view of the clouds over three complete cloud seasons. The clouds form 50 miles above Earth. Typical clouds are about seven miles up. Because the night-shining clouds are so high, they reflect sunlight even after the sun is below the horizon, forming an iridescent silvery-blue color, Russell said.

The clouds have been appearing at lower and lower latitudes since 1999, though. Last summer, they were spotted in latitudes as low as Seattle and Illinois. HU is trying to find out why that's happening and if there's a connection to global change in the atmosphere, Russell said.

Researchers have learned that temperature changes trigger the beginning and end of cloud seasons, Russell said. The seasons typically occur during summer in the North and South polar regions.

The buildup of methane gas in the earth's atmosphere helps make the water vapor needed for the clouds to form, he added.

"If indeed what we're doing at the surface of Earth is causing the atmosphere to change in a very remote and rarified region right on the edge of space, literally, that also says we're changing the whole atmosphere," Russell said.

Funding timeline

July 2002: HU gets $140 million from NASA to study night-shining clouds through May 2009.

July 2008: HU gets $10.2 million more to continue mission

July 2010: HU gets $6.3 million more to continue mission.

Find out more about the mission at