Spacelab-2 Plasma Depletion Experiments for Ionospheric and Radio Astronomical Studies

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Science  27 Nov 1987:
Vol. 238, Issue 4831, pp. 1260-1264
DOI: 10.1126/science.238.4831.1260

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The Spacelab-2 Plasma Depletion Experiments were a series of studies to examine shuttle-induced perturbations in the ionosphere and their application to ground-based radio astronomy. The space shuttle Challenger fired its orbital maneuvering subsystem engines on 30 July and 5 August 1985, releasing large amounts of exhaust molecules (water, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide) that caused the electrons and ions in Earth's upper atmosphere to chemically recombine, thereby creating so-called "ionospheric holes." Two burns conducted over New England produced ionospheric peak depletions ranging from 25 to 50 percent, affected the ionosphere over a 200-kilometer altitude range, and covered 1° to 2° of latitude. Optical emissions associated with the hole spanned an area of several hundred thousand square kilometers. A third burn was conducted over a low-frequency radio observatory in Hobart, Australia, to create an "artificial window" for ground-based observations at frequencies normally below the natural ionospheric cutoff (penetration) frequency. The Hobart experiment succeeded in making high-resolution observations at 1.7 megahertz through the induced ionospheric hole.