Earth’s epic flashes can help rate exoplanet habitability


NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory captures light reflected off ice crystals high in the atmosphere, writes Ariella Heffernan-Marks.




NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) has captured 866 bursts of reflected light appearing on the Earth’s surface using the specialised polychromatic imaging camera known as EPIC.

These ‘flashes’ were initially spotted in 1993 by Carl Sagan on images of Earth taken by the Galileo spacecraft on its journey towards Jupiter. However, Sagan and others deemed the ‘flashes’ to be simple reflections of water from oceans or lakes.

When the data was analysed further, it was discovered the flashes appeared on land as well as water masses; with the images captured by EPIC, researchers have further determined the flashes are the result of high-altitude ice crystals reflecting sunlight entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Computer modelling software may be able to use these ‘flashes’ to indicate how much solar radiation is entering our atmosphere, leading to more accurate weather monitoring and forecasting. Equally, the modelling could be used to determine the level of sunlight present in exoplanets, and thus their ability to host new life.

  1. https://epic.gsfc.nasa.gov/
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