Header Bar Graphic
Space Image and IconSpace HeaderKids Image
Spacer Space IconHomepage ButtonWhat is NASA Quest ButtonSpacerCalendar of Events ButtonWhat is an Event ButtonHow do I Participate ButtonSpacerBios and Journals ButtonSpacerPics, Flicks and Facts ButtonArchived Events ButtonQ and A ButtonNews ButtonSpacerEducators and Parents ButtonSpacer
Highlight Graphic
Sitemap ButtonSearch ButtonContact Button

Liftoff to Learning: The Atmosphere Below

Video Title: The Atmosphere Below
Video Length: 16:02
Videos may be viewed using free RealPlayer
Click on the highlighted title to see the video using RealPlayer

Description: Changes in Earth's atmosphere are investigated from outer space onboard the Space Shuttle.

Grade Level: 5-8

Subjects: Earth Science

  Mathematics Standards:
Number and Number Relationships

Science Standards:
Earth and Space Science
-Structure of the Earth system
Physical Science
-Properties of objects and materials
Unifying Concepts and Processes
-Change, constancy, and measurement

Table of Contents


There are problems occurring in the Earth's atmosphere. Ozone holes, global warming, air pollution emissions, and predicted increases in skin cancers have caught the attention of scientists, environmentalists, and political leaders around the world. Many believe that important changes are taking place that could have a profound impact on all life. But much about the atmosphere is still unknown. It is a dynamic system of complex chemical and physical interactions. Because of its dynamic nature, the atmosphere is difficult to understand and model.

The atmosphere receives radiation from the Sun and is bombarded by a continuing stream of particles from the Sun and from deep space. Surrounding Earth is a magnetic field that captures electrically charged particles and brings them in contact with the atmosphere's upper reaches. The gases in the atmosphere absorb radiation and deflect wavelengths that could be harmful to life. Temperatures and chemical reactions vary widely through the atmosphere's different layers. Near the Earth's surface, interactions take place with the land, the oceans, and with human-made pollutants. Furthermore, the atmosphere changes from day to night, season to season, and from the equator to the poles.

Atmospheric measurements taken at the Earth's surface and from balloons and sounding rockets tell only part of the story. Scientists also need data gathered from the high vantage point of Earth orbit. In March of 1992, NASA embarked on an important new series of atmospheric studies made from space that take advantage of the unique capabilities of the Space Shuttle. These studies may help us answer some perplexing questions about the atmosphere's future as well as our own.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis carried the first of the Spacelab missions devoted to the study of the atmosphere. Onboard was the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science (ATLAS 1), a collection of 13 instruments designed to conduct 14 investigations in atmospheric science, solar science, space plasma physics and astronomy for scientists from the United States, Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and the Netherlands. From a 300-kilometer-high orbit, inclined 57 degrees with respect to the Earth's equator, the ATLAS 1 payload was in an advantageous position to observe the atmosphere, the Sun, and astronomical targets.

The crew of seven maneuvered the spacecraft and continuously controlled and monitored the experiments in consultation with investigators and planners on the ground.

Instruments and Purposes

During the 8-day mission, the instruments measured the total energy contained in sunlight and how that energy varies, measured the chemical composition of the Earth's upper atmosphere, investigated how the Earth's electric and magnetic fields and the atmosphere influence one another, and examined sources of ultraviolet light in the universe. Nine major instruments are listed below. They are grouped by main purpose. In the next section, these instruments are discussed in more detail.

Gases and aerosols:
Atmospheric Trace Spectroscopy instrument (ATMOS)
GRILLE Spectrometer
Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet instrument (SSBUV-A)

Solar radiation and atmospheric effects:
Solar Ultraviolet Irradiance Monitor (SUSIM)
Active Cavity Radiometer (ACR)
Measurement of Solar Constant instrument (SOLCON)
Millimeter Wave Atmospheric Sounder (MAS)


Space Experiments with Particle Accelerators (SEPAC)

Far Ultraviolet Space Telescope (FAUST)

Mission Results  contents

The Atmospheric Trace Spectroscopy instrument surveyed atmospheric trace molecules by measuring the effects they have on infrared radiation. Similar measurements were also taken by the GRILLE Spectrometer. The data from these two instruments revealed aerosol bands in the atmosphere that were probably remnants of the Mt. Pinatubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines.

The Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet (SSBUV-A) instrument has flown previously on three shuttle missions. The SSBUV-A is similar to instruments on Nimbus and TIROS (televisor infrared satellite) satellites that measure ozone concentrations at various levels in the atmosphere. In time, data readings from these satellites fluctuate, making the accuracy of the readings suspect. Measurements taken by the SSBUV-A are being compared to those from the satellites to reestablish satellite instrument accuracy and to validate previously transmitted data.

In a similar vein, the Solar Ultraviolet Irradiance Monitor (SUSIM) and the Active Cavity Radiometer (ACR) provided data that will insure the continued accuracy of similar instruments on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (WARS) which was launched in 1991 by the Space Shuttle Discovery. SUSIM made very accurate measurements of the Sun's ultraviolet radiation flow to learn how this radiation changes over time and relate those changes to changes in the atmosphere. The ACR instrument also measured ultraviolet radiation and, along with the Measurement of Solar Constant (SOLCON) instrument, provided a very accurate measure on the solar constant, the amount of energy the Sun constantly delivers to the atmosphere. Scientists theorize that changes in the constant of only 0.5 percent per century could lead to global climatic changes ranging from tropical to ice age conditions. The Millimeter Wave Atmospheric Sounder (MAS) instrument on ATLAS was also used for comparison with similar instruments on WARS. MAS recorded important measurements on ozone and chlorine monoxide, a key trace molecule involved in the destruction of ozone.

With two exceptions, all thirteen ATLAS 1 instruments had no major problems. In spite of blown fuses on two of the instruments (Far Ultraviolet Space Telescope or FAUST and Space Experiments with Particle Accelerators or SEPAC), all 14 investigations supported by the instruments received significant data. The FAUST instrument provided astronomers with their first opportunity to explore wide areas of the sky in the far ultraviolet radiation wavelength range. Most ultraviolet light coming to Earth from space is filtered out by the Earth's atmosphere, making it essential to travel into space to study this radiation firsthand. Previous space-flown ultraviolet instruments have focused on narrow regions of the sky. Before its power failure, FAUST observed the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy to gain information that may help astronomers better understand the evolution of our own galaxy. A gas trail behind the cloud was observed that could indicate a region of star formation. FAUST also made observations of galaxy clusters in the Virgo, Telescopium, Dorado, and Ophicus constellations.

The SEPAC instrument was used for controlled experiments that were successful in generating the first artificial auroras ever produced in the Earth's upper atmosphere. By firing a 7.4 kilowatt electron beam into the Earth's upper atmosphere, electrons circling atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen atoms and molecules were excited to higher energy levels. As they resumed to lower levels, they released light, forming high intensity auroras several kilometers in diameter. Forty of the 60 beams produced artificial auroras and were imaged by the Atmospheric Emission Photometric Imaging experiment mounted in Atlantis's payload bay. The energy output of these auroras was greater than the energy input from the beam, indicating that the beam may have triggered larger reactions in the atmosphere. SEPAC was also used to investigate the interaction of ionized and neutral gases in space by injecting over 1,000 xenon gas clouds into the atmosphere. Furthermore, SEPAC generated radio waves with about 100,000 electron beam pulses. The pulses were observed by ATLAS 1 instruments and by over 100 receivers on the ground in the United States and Japan.

Terms  contents

Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications in Science (ATLAS) - Series of Spacelab-based missions to study the nature of Earth's atmosphere, environmental problems, and the atmosphere's relationship to the outer space environment.

Carbon Dioxide
- Molecule consisting of one atom of carbon and two of oxygen.

Chlorofluorocarbons - A series of human-made chemical compounds used in cooling and other application.

Global Warming - A suspected increase in world-wide temperatures.

Greenhouse Effect - Trapping of solar energy by gases in the Earth's atmosphere.

Methane - Molecule consisting of one atom of carbon and four of hydrogen.

Oxides of Nitrogen - A group of molecules consisting of nitrogen and oxygen.

- Molecule of oxygen consisting of three atoms of oxygen.

Ozone Depletion - The destruction of upper atmosphere ozone molecules through the action of human-made chemicals and sunlight.

Ultraviolet Radiation - Short wave electromagnetic radiation just beyond the visible violet light.

Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) - Scientific satellite launched by the STS-48 mission in 1991.

Classroom Activities  contents

These activities will help your students understand the material in "The Atmosphere Below." In both activities students investigate properties of the atmosphere.

Balloon Science


Two small latex balloons
Two 15-cm pieces of string
30.5-cm ruler
Piece of notebook paper

Earth's air has many characteristics. Scientists have developed different ways of investigating these characteristics. In this exercise students will investigate an important question about air: Does it have weight?

Attach a balloon to each end of a ruler, being careful to use exactly the same lengths of string or tape to attach each balloon. Suspend the ruler on a string at approximately the 15-cm mark to create a balance. With tape, attach the top of the string to a wall about eye level. Tape the notebook paper to the wall behind the ruler. Put a pencil mark on the paper above and below each end of the ruler to mark its beginning position. Remove one of the balloons and blow into it, inflating it as much as possible. Tie and reattach the balloon with the same piece of string. Gently pull the string suspending the ruler away from the wall, allowing the ruler to readjust. Carefully release the string and check the ruler's new position. Mark the paper with the pencil again.

Does the ruler still balance?
Does one balloon now weigh more than the other?
What does this tell you about air?
Was your hypothesis correct? When a number of different experiments give the same results, the hypothesis may be accepted as a theory.


Determine the weight of the air in the balloon. (To do this, the students just have to weigh the balloon deflated, then inflated and subtract the first number from the second.)
Determine the weight density of the air in the balloon. (Find the volume of air by using a similar balloon. Put water into it until it has about the same size as the balloon with air. Then measure the volume of water; this will be about the same as the volume of air. Divide this number into the air's weight from Extension 1. This is the weight density of the air.)

Nothing but the Truth


Daily newspapers
Pencils or pens

All the mysteries that ATLAS 1 scientists investigated involve possible causes of atmospheric changes. To obtain the most accurate information, researchers must measure chemicals at different altitudes in the atmosphere in sunlight and in darkness, and during all seasons for many years. Even then, scientists have more questions: Are the instruments measuring accurately? What were conditions nearer the ground when measurements were made from space? How are conditions in the middle atmosphere related to events in the troposphere? To help answer these questions, researchers use airplanes, balloons, rockets, and ground measurements to double check and add to data obtained from space. These efforts are called ground-truth studies and make remotely sensed data even more accurate and important. You, too, can perform ground-truth studies.


Check the newspaper daily and record information on temperature highs and lows, amount of precipitation and humidity. Keep these charts and, as the year progresses, figure weekly and monthly averages for your area. You may want to compare these with figures from previous years using an almanac or examining old newspapers in the microfiche section of your library. You might also want to make your own measurements of rainfall, snowfall and high and low temperatures. Different groups may want to select forecasters on several radio or TV stations to determine which predicted results are closest to those actually measured.




What do you notice about temperature highs and lows, precipitation, and humidity throughout the year?
Do these seasonal variations mean that the climate is changing?
If you investigate measurements from past years, do changes necessarily mean that the climate is changing?
How accurate are the weather forecasts in your area?

Calculate weekly, monthly, and yearly averages of temperature and rainfall in your area. Make a bar chart showing average temperatures for each time span. Another important statistic is how much temperature and rainfall changes differ from the average. This difference is called the "standard deviation" because it measures how much something "deviates" or differs from the average.

chart to use of calculations

References  contents

NASA Publications ATLAS Educator Slide Set, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Education Division, 1991.

Other Publications
The Greenhouse Effect, United States Department of Energy, 1991.
Rosenthal, D., Golden, R., Global Warming High School Science Activities, Climate Protection Institute, 1991.
Snow, R., Golden, R., Global Warming Social Studies Activities, Climate Protection Institute, 1991.
USA Today. Earth Today - Your Place in the Environment, Teacher's Guide, Gannett Co. 1990. Sunlight. Earthwise Environmental Learning Series, V1n2, WP Press, 1992.

STS-45 Crew Biographies

Brian Duffy (U. Col., USAF).
Kathryn D. Sullivan (Ph.D.)
David C. Leestma (Capt., USN).
C.Michael Foale (Ph.D.).
Byron K. Lichtenberg (Sc.D.).
Dirk D. Frimout (Ph.D.).

To obtain biographic information, click on highlighted names


Footer Bar Graphic
SpacerSpace IconAerospace IconAstrobiology IconWomen of NASA IconSpacer
Footer Info