When charged particles from space meet our atmosphere, the party can get a little rowdy. These extreme energy flares will be the focus of a new observatory that launches next year and will trace where the troublemaker photons come from — all while using Earth as a giant detector.
The mission, JEM-EUSO (Extreme Universe Space Observatory onboard the Japanese Experiment Module), will observe Earth’s dark side. The telescope will be mounted on the International Space Station (ISS) and is expected to detect at least a thousand events of extreme energy, according to a conference paper. Cute enough, the ISS Japanese module is nicknamed Kibo, which means “hope.” Sixteen countries are collaborating on the mission.
But what are these raves of ultraviolet light? Transient luminous events (also referred to as TLEs) occur when cosmic rays and other charged particles come hurtling out of the Milky Way galaxy and collide with the atmosphere. Once the particle collides, it can create an extensive air shower, which produces a trackable motion of energy that the telescope will be able to reveal. It’s physics that takes the form of cascading currents that create more particles and move downward in the atmosphere.
To see these fluorescent streaks, the instrument has to be mounted at a particular angle to have a good view of the atmosphere, which is about 250 miles (or 400 kilometers) above sea level, if you’re curious. JEM-EUSO will also be able to see other phenomena like lightning and meteors, and rarer TLEs like sprites, blue jets and elves.
The EUSO telescope could also be used off-brand, like helping locate the derelict space garbage that has created a minefield around Earth. Research published last year may or may not also suggest strapping a laser to EUSO to zap the trash.
EUSO was initially part of another European Space Agency mission but was re-assigned to the module, which was developed by the Japanese Space Agency.