Sunday, September 28, 2014

Space bubbles may have killed three soldiers in Afghanistan

Space bubbles may have killed three soldiers in Afghanistan

On the morning of March 4, 2002, military officers in Afghanistan radioed a Chinook helicopter that was heading towards the snowcapped peak of Takur Ghar to warn the passengers that the peak was under enemy control. However, the message never reached the helicopter, and shortly after daybreak, the helicopter crash-landed on the peak, killing three men.

More than a decade later, scientists have taken a closer look at why the warning wasn’t able to reach the helicopter. It has been speculated that this was a result of human error, but scientists have discovered that this isn’t the case. Instead, the radio interference may be explained by something called a “plasma bubble”, which is essentially an interruption by space weather.

Plasma bubbles are giant, wispy clouds of electrically charged gas particles. These bubbles form just after dark in the upper atmosphere and are usually around 62 miles wide. These bubbles have been known to bend and, in the process, disperse radio waves which results in communication interference.

The plasma is usually kept stable by sunlight during the day, but at night, the charged particles recombine to form electrically neutral atoms and molecules again. This recombination happens more quickly at lower altitudes which makes bubbles rise up through the denser plasma above.

The scientists examined data from the Global Ultraviolet Imager (GUVI) instrument aboard NASA’s TIMED mission, which studies the composition and dynamics of Earth’s upper atmosphere. What they found was that there was a plasma bubble directly between the helicopter and the communications satellite, which blocked the warning.

Read more about the story at Discovery News.

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