Sunset Over the Aleutian Islands
A sunset over the Aleutian Islands, with noctilucent clouds, is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 36 crew member on the International Space Station. The crew member took this panoramic view looking north from the Aleutian Islands when the space station was flying east at "the top of the orbit," the northernmost latitude reached by the orbital complex (51.6 degrees north). If the sun had been higher, the string of Aleutian Islands would have been visible in the foreground. Here the islands are on the dark side of the day-night line. From their vantage point at 222 kilometers altitude on this day, crew members were able to see as far north as the Arctic Ocean and the midnight sun. This image was taken just 20 minutes after local midnight in early August 2013.
The midnight sun makes the red, diamond-shaped teardrop reflection (lower center)—perhaps a reflection within the camera lens, or from the window frame, or some item inside the ISS. Long blue-white stringers can be seen in the atmosphere above the midnight sun. These are known as noctilucent clouds (night-shining clouds). Some crew members say these wispy, rippling, iridescent clouds are the most beautiful phenomena they see from orbit.
Noctilucents are thin so that they are best seen after sunset when the viewer is on the night side of the day-night line, but while these high clouds are still lit by the sun. Crews are trained in this somewhat complicated geometry—of clouds being lit from beneath, with the spacecraft in sunlight though the ground directly beneath is in darkness. Noctilucent clouds are also known as polar mesospheric clouds (PMCs) as they appear in the summer hemisphere over polar latitudes.
Some data suggest that they are becoming brighter, and appearing at lower latitudes, perhaps as an effect of global warming. A comparison of noctilucent cloud formation from 2012 and 2013 has been compiled using data from NASA's Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) shows an earlier start and an increase in the area covered by these clouds in 2013. Polar mesospheric clouds are interesting to scientists because they form much higher in the atmosphere (75-90 kilometers) compared with altitudes of normal rainclouds that form in the lowest, densest "weather-layer" below approximately 15 kilometers. The weather layer, or troposphere, is most distinct in this image as a thin orange line along the left horizon.