Phenomena

Noctilucent Clouds

Noctilucent clouds shining at night.

Noctilucent clouds are the “highest, driest, coldest, and rarest clouds on Earth.” Formed in the mesosphere at altitudes over 80 kilometers, these clouds typically form at polar latitudes where they can catch sunlight hours after sunset, hence their night-shining name. The clouds take shape when water vapor in cold mesospheric air layers freezes onto dust left behind by meteors.

Fun fact: because of their high altitude and particle size and density, noctilucent clouds were considered a hazard for space shuttle reentry, and planners explicitly avoided trajectories that would take the spacecraft near potential clouds. (Image credit: top – N. Fewings, other – J. Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Satellite image of noctilucent clouds above the North Pole.
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