Near the point at which the atmosphere flows into space, there is an undiscovered region known as the mesosphere or, more commonly, the ignorosphere. The air is too thin to support planes or balloons. Yet, any satellite still has enough material to excite very little. Scientists are hoping to study the mesosphere using optimistic light-flying discs (best not to call them saucers) and have now demonstrated models of this concept in the lab.
The mesosphere is not a place that “nobody has ever been before”, as every astronaut has gone through it both up and down. The problem for those willing to study its mysteries, including any impact on the climate below, is that these types of passages have always been created very quickly, with no opportunity to stop and explore. Mohsen Azadi, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, hopes to change that through research published in Science Progress. Azadi and colleagues created a “light field” by glowing in a chamber where air could remove to simulate conditions at altitudes of 50–80 km (10–30 feet or 0.0001–0.0003 bar pressure at sea level).
They then make 500-nanometer-thick matching discs (~1/50th of a human hair) and cover the bottom with carbon nanotubes. When placed in the chamber and equivalent to sunlight, the discs warm up to about 100 km in warm air. A molecule of gas facing the disk from the bottom communicates multiple times with the high-structured nanotubes, like a ball where the corner walls and the floor meet. At the top, a molecule will have only a single contact with the mylar.
As a result, once the warmer surface hit the gas particles enough it hit it, so they reorganized and provided a ward upward force to the disk. The top layer of the Mylar gives very little power to anything on that side; creating a net upward power on the disk in other words, the light levitated them. Sunlight alone heats the discs large enough to create a strong enough effect to balance the force of gravity on the small weight of the disc. Azadi and co-authors report that even the discs should be able to handle their curls.
Although the discs need to be light enough to do the job, Azadi also predicts in their current 6-millimeter (0.24-inch) diameter format that they can carry up to 10 milligrams of payload. As small as this is, it may be enough to suspend a dust sensor beneath them, increasing their durability and revealing the composition of the mesosphere. Radar tracking of disks can help us understand wind patterns at this altitude, which is currently lacking in global climate models.
The research could have continued even at night, with the discs shining and lasers burning on them, giving Scotty a completely new meaning to “beam me up”.