Technology 3 min read

New Hovering Plates Could Enable Study of the Mesosphere

Free-Photos /

Free-Photos /

The mesosphere — the high-up region of the atmosphere — is notoriously challenging to study. And that’s not surprising.

The denser air below it provides enough lift to planes and balloons. At the same time, the thermosphere above is thin enough to prevent air drags from burning orbiting satellites.

Unfortunately, the mesosphere gets the worst of both worlds. Not only is it too thin for lift, but the region is also thick enough to burn an orbiter.

As a result, researchers have generally ignored the region, despite its many interesting phenomena. These include:

  • Weird blue and red lightning
  • Microscopic shrapnel of meteors — shooting stars
  • Insight into Ozone damage

A mechanical engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Igor Bargatin, explained:

“Sometimes it’s called ignorosphere, in joke. We just don’t have access to it. You can send a rocket for a few minutes at a time, but that’s very different from doing measurements using airplanes or balloons.”

According to the Bargatin, sending scientific feelers to the mesosphere requires engineering a new way of flying.

That’s what Mohsen Azadi and his lab mates at the University of Pennsylvania did — devise a new way of flying. The researchers managed to levitate two small plastics using nothing but light.

Here’s how they did it.

Developing Levitating Plates to Research the Mesosphere

The researchers made two plastic plates hover using energy from a set of bright LEDs in a vacuum chamber.

Energy from the LEDs heated the specially-coated underbelly of the tiny Mylar plates — each as wide as a pencil’s diameter. As a result, the air particles under the plastic became powerful enough to levitate the samples.

When the two samples lifted, there was this gasp between all four of us,” said Azadi.

To be clear, light-induced flow or photophoresis isn’t new.

Previously, scientists relied on the phenomenon to hover invisible aerosols and sort particles in microfluidic devices. However, researchers have never been able to moved an object that is big enough to grasp — until now.

A physicist at Tel Aviv University who was not part of the study, Yael Roichman, told the press:

“When they said that they have a centimeter-sized object that they can levitate using photophoretic forces, I was very skeptical. I think this is actually potentially very useful and innovative.”

According to reports, NASA has expressed interest in the technology’s potential in Mars research. That’s because the Red planet‘s atmospheric pressure is similar to Earth’s mesosphere.

Indeed, such tiny light-powered levitators could one day explore Mar’s atmosphere. However, it remains to be seen whether the device can withstand our planet’s mesospheric conditions.

The researchers published their paper in the journal Science Advances.

Read More: NASA Scientist Experiments with Growing Radishes on Lunar Soil

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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