How do clouds affect weather patterns on Earth and other planets (like Saturn, Venus, and Mars)? This problem led NASA to develop a new turbidimeter, a sensor that measures the details of the cloud’s composition. The device is being tested on Earth and could one day be deployed in distant space to further our understanding of weather patterns across the solar system.
is called NephEx (short for Nephelometer Experiment). New NASA equipment at the Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley can measure the scattering of light from particles (including cloud droplets and ice particles) in the air. With this data, a device like NephEx can tell scientists the state of cloud formation and under what conditions the cloud formed. Turbidimeters such as NephEx can also provide information on the cloud’s water content and the cloud’s impact on the planetary atmosphere or radiation and thermal environment. This data also complements common technologies for cloud and weather monitoring, such as remote sensing via satellites.
“Remote sensing data is very important because it can quickly provide us with global images of clouds and weather, but it is limited to the outermost layer of the cloud,” said NephEx principal investigator Dr. Anthony Colaprete. “By flying the turbidimeter directly into the clouds, we have increased the ability to verify remote sensing data and collect more detailed information.”
This ability can make the modeling and prediction of climate models more accurate. Furthermore, the small scale of NephEx means that these data checks and enhancements can be carried out on more types of Earth’s climate research platforms more easily and frequently.
On June 11, 2021, researchers tested NephEx outside of the terrestrial laboratory by launching NephEx from a high-altitude balloon in the Baltic Sea, South Dakota. The flight was provided by Raven Aerostar of Sioux Falls and funded by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. The balloon carried the sensor to a floating altitude of about 70,000 feet for about two hours and then entered the cloud to collect data on its internal composition. The flight test has taken an important step towards the maturity of the technology and the evaluation of its ability to measure the size, concentration and distribution of cloud particles. These data are essential for understanding the impact of clouds on Earth’s climate.
“The launches supported by these flight opportunities are affordable and easily accessible, allowing us to take significant iterative technology development steps in an environment directly applicable to how the technology is ultimately implemented,” said Colaprete. “They gave us a lot of practice and quick learning to finally come up with a better end product.”
Sara Venhuizen, Raven Aerostar System Engineering Team Leader,
NephEx is investigated by Raven Aerostar System Engineering Team Leader Sara Venhuizen and NASA Ames. -Researcher Matthew Garrett is embedded in the balloon capsule.
Credit: NASA, Raven Aerostar Field test
provided by Flight Opportunities is important in preparing promising innovations for riskier or more expensive planetary missions, such as NASA’s new frontiers and missions in the Discovery Program. In the case of NephEx, these include possible future missions to Venus, where scientists hope to deploy balloons to study the atmospheres of Earth’s sister planets. With further testing and development, NephEx can also study the atmospheres of gas giant planets composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, such as Saturn and Jupiter. The final flight size of the
is approximately 2 x 2 x 1.5 inches Compared to the turbidity meter on NASA’s Galileo probe, the pocket-sized NephEx will be more compact and consume significantly less power. Galileo launched into space in 1995 and provided the first in situ observation of the Jupiter cloud.
“The Galileo sensor was the most advanced at the time, but it was large, more than 50 inches at its widest point, and it consumed a lot of power, between 15 and 20 watts,” explained Colaprete. “Future deep-space missions to other planets will require more and more instruments, and the sensors must be very small.”
Colaprete’s idea is to use the advancement of near-infrared (IR) lasers widely used in the telecommunications industry to reduce the size of the instruments. The result of this “Aha!” moment is a dual laser system that uses infrared pulses that are invisible to the naked eye to measure light scattering from clouds and determine the concentration of particles that make up the interior of the clouds. The two lasers use different wavelengths, so researchers can not only determine the average particle size of the cloud, but also determine the distribution of each particle size in the cloud.
“Because of its low weight and power, it is possible for us to fly multiple sensor networks on multiple aircraft at the same time,” said Colaprete. “This allows us to make true three-dimensional measurements of the complete state of the cloud and how it changes over time, which will make observing the cloud exceed the capabilities we currently know.”
The possibilities are enormous and the seeds of this potential are sown. through field tests. Analysis of recent balloon flight data will allow Colaprete and his colleagues to improve the NephEx design before conducting further tests and deploying ground or planetary studies.
“Observing other planets is not just understanding these planets,” said Colaprete. “Ultimately, it helps to understand the climate control process of the entire solar system (including Earth).”
About Flight Opportunities The
Flight Opportunities Program was funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at its headquarters in Washington. by the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. Ames manages the request and evaluation of technologies that will be tested and demonstrated on commercial aircraft.



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