Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:April 10th, 2009 10:32 EST
Scientists Claim to Have Found Our Inner Limit of Space

Scientists Claim to Have Found Our Inner Limit of Space

By Christopher HIllenbrand

Scientists have eagerly awaited the moment when technology could explain where outer space began. The aptly named "edge of space" or "boundary to space", as scientists have rightfully called it, referring to the vague boundary separating the Earth`s atmosphere and outer space, has been a persistent quandary for scientists around the world in defining where to draw that invisible line. But with a breakthrough experimental instrument unveiled by researchers at the University of Calgary, the scientific community may just find the answer they were looking for.

The Supra-Thermal Ion Imager developed by the university`s research trust, was brought aboard the JOULE-II rocket that was launched into space on January 19, 2000. Once the vessel reached the marker of 124 miles (200 kilometers) from sea level, the device was activated, during the five minutes the craft was able to stay the course, to gather information of the differences between the Earth`s wind movements and the particle streams in space. The instrument was designed to discern the vastly slower winds on the planet from the aggressive flows in outer space that can top speeds of 600 mph.

This pioneering feat utilized a spacecraft in an area of the Earth`s atmosphere where satellites and weather balloons can`t go. Weather balloons can only venture into the mesosphere, which is far too low to detect the differences in the cosmic winds; and satellites are unable to maintain flight inside the thermosphere to accurately protract the Earth`s wind patterns.

The study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research on April 7th, which outlined the discovery`s empirical purpose in analyzing space weather and how it may affect astronomical activity and other related issues here on Earth.

David Knudsen, a University of Calgary project scientist who worked on the experiment, said: "It`s only the second time that direct measurements of charged particle flows have been made in this region, and the first time all the ingredients - such as the upper atmospheric winds - have been included," to representatives from SPACE.com. Knudsen went on to talk about how the information collected "allows us to calculate energy flows into the Earth`s atmosphere that ultimately may be able to help us understand the interaction between space and our environment. That could mean a greater understanding of the link between sunspots and the warming and cooling of the Earth`s climate as well as how space weather impacts satellites, communications, navigation, and power systems."

But the scientists skeptical of the instrument`s application have a plethora of reasons to not subscribe to the instrument`s findings. Though the data obtained by the new device concluded that the Earth`s atmosphere ends, and where outer space begins, 73 miles above the planet`s crust, the newly coined "boundary" is shrouded in misconceptions and unclear definitions for the term.

The new discovery conflicts with pre-existing beliefs held by physicists, mathematicians, and even astronauts who have embarked on shuttle missions.

N.A.S.A. astronauts insist that they passed the barrier dividing our world`s atmosphere and space at 50 miles above the Earth`s surface.

And those involved in the space program have qualms over both of those measurements. The Karman Line, discovered by the Hungarian engineer and physicist Theodore von Karman back in the mid-1950`s to determine where the "boundary to space" actually lies, of 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth`s surface is the most commonly accepted gauge used by aeronautical organizations to separate that fine line. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the space agency responsible for setting aeronautical measures and standards, abides by this rule of thumb.

Karman calculated that at this level in the thermosphere, the atmosphere decreases in density to a point where standard aircraft can`t operate any more, due to their inability to reach the speeds necessary in the thin air to achieve the aerodynamic lift crucial to flight.

While N.A.S.A. follows the FAI`s guidelines for the most part, the U.S. space agency has never sworn to accept any given definition for that foggy idea. They clarified that by not adhering to a certain estimate, the U.S. government then doesn`t have to worry about the overflight rights of satellites and other orbiters under the American banner.

N.A.S.A administration goes by the boundary altitude of 76 miles or 122 kilometers as the height for safe re-entry when shuttles can revert thruster controls back to air surfaces command.

Some scientists controvert the claims even further by saying the "cosmic precipice" should be located 13 million miles away from sea level where the Earth`s gravitational pull is counterbalanced by the equally powerful particle streams in space.