Noctilucent Clouds, 1993 - 2019
When the light evenings of summer arrive, it can be tempting to give up looking for celestial objects and instead study cloud formations! In fact, some clouds form at such high altitude that they are of interest to astronomers: noctilucent clouds. They usually appear as complex interwoven streaks or knots, often pearly white, sometimes with a blue tinge, and may have a golden lower edge. They look similar to cirrostratus; indeed, there is a risk of mistaking cirrostratus illuminated by streetlights or moonlight for them. The term noctilucent comes from Latin and means luminous at night. Reports by members of OASI of observations of noctilucent clouds are below.
Neil Morley Observing From Tessy Sur Vire, Northern France, 10 July 2019
The images were taken at 03:13 and 03:14 UT from location 48.9525° N, 1.05684° W, Tessy Sur Vire, northern France. Equipment: FV-5 camera app installed on a Huawei Y.635 Smartphone, aperture fixed at F/2.2, automatic exposure and focus settings. Pictures taken with the phone handheld and are slightly out of focus.
Cloud classification: estimated as a combination of Type IIIb billows (closely spaced roughly parallel short streaks with an undulating wave-like structure) and Type IIa bands (streaks with diffuse edges). The International Association of Geomagnetism and Aeronomy provide an explanation in a PDF document accessible via www.johnmurrell.org.uk/nlc.html.
Cloud azimuth estimated as between 10° W to 30° E (before trees cut in); elevation estimated as 22°. This corresponds to a line of sight distance to the cloud formation of 206 km according to the above website.
| 03:13 UT
|| 03:14 UT
21 June 2019
- Martin Cook, East Ipswich, 21:50 UT. Capturing the image necessitated standing on the roof of the shed at the bottom of the garden!
- Martin Richmond-Hardy, Kirton. Taken with an iPhone looking NNE, somewhat obscured by trees.
- Mike Harlow, Newbourne, 22:40 UT.
- Mike Harlow. Image taken immediately after the preceding one.
Roy Gooding Observing From West Ipswich, 19 July 2016
Taken at 03:40 UT with a Canon SX700 HS compact camera mounted on a gorilla tripod. The camera was set to automatic, giving an exposure time of 1/8 second.
Andy Gibbs Observing From West Ipswich, 04 July 2014
Nnoctilucent clouds over Ipswich railway station imaged at approximately 02:00 UT.
Mike Harlow Observing From Newbourne, 15 July 2009
Taken 04:03 - 04:43 UT.
Sue Collison Observing From Woodbridge, 14 July 2009
Taken around 21:30 UT with an Olympus SP-550 Ultra Zoom camera. This was Sue's first observation of noctilucent cloud and, like many others seeing it for the first time, she was mesmerised, describing it as beautiful, wonderful.
Nigel Evans Observing From North Ipswich, 13 July 2009
Mike Harlow Observing From Newbourne, 16 June 2009
A modest display of noctilucent cloud occurred at 22:00 UT, lasted for approximately 25 minutes, then gradually fainted. Images taken with a pocket digital camera.
Martin Cook Observing From East Ipswich, 14 July 2006
Images captured circa 20:15 UT using an Olympus C-765 Ultra Zoom camera, set to automatic, with wide-angle lens.
Pete Richards Observing From Nacton, 14 July 2006
Images taken at 21:35 UT with a Sony Cybershot DSC-P100 5.1 megapixel compact digital camera. The camera was in automatic mode and selected a sensitivity of ISO 320 and a one minute exposure at F2.8.
Mike Harlow Observing From Bucklesham, 19 June 2005
Image captured with an SLR using a 55 mm lens and 200 ASA film at f/5.6 with a 30 s exposure.
Mike Harlow Observing From Bucklesham, 14 June 2005
Image captured with an SLR using a 55 mm lens and 200 ASA film at f/5.6 with a 30 s exposure.
Mike Harlow Observing From Newbourne, 18 June 1999
The observing season for noctilucent cloud in 1999 ended with just one positive sighting by OASI members. At 22.20 UT on Friday 18 June, I saw a modest display from Newbourne and observed it through to 23.10 UT. The cloud was confined to altitudes below Capella and stretched for approximately 45° in azimuth along the north to north-western horizon. I took photographs using 17 mm, 24 mm, 55 mm and 135 mm lenses on 400 ASA film. Although the cloud exhibited little structure, the photographs show some of the characteristic 'herring bone' structure on a range of scales.
Mike Harlow Observing From Newbourne, 08 July 1997
Noctilucent clouds observed in a clear sky. Photographs taken at approximately 22.05 UT with a 55 mm lens and a 135 mm lens, both at f/4 for 10 s on 400 ASA Kodak slide film. Capella is visible to the lower left of the cloud edge in the 55 mm shot and stars in Perseus are visible in the 135 mm photo.
| 55 mm lens
|| 135 mm lens
Mike Harlow Observing From Newbourne, 18 June 1997
Noctilucent cloud visible through gaps in 'terrestrial' cloud low on the north-west horizon. Image taken at 22.35 UT with a 135 mm lens at f/4, 10 s on Kodak 400 ASA slide film.
Mike Harlow Observing From Trimley St. Mary, 01 July 1996
Noctilucent cloud visible 21.20 - 22.40 UT. Photograph with a 135 mm lens at f/5, 4 s exposure on 200 ASA film.
Mike Harlow Observing From Trimley St. Mary, 28 June 1993
By chance, I walked outside on 28 June 1993, a little before 11.00pm, and saw a rare and beautiful atmospheric phenomenon, noctilucent cloud. Initially I didn't know what I was looking at, and my first thought was that it was an aurora. However, I soon realised that the colour and location were wrong: an aurora is often green or pink and extends high into the sky, but the glow that I saw was a pale silvery-blue quite low in the north-west. I stood watching for some time before remembering that I possessed a camera and should be taking pictures! I called David Payne to confirm that I wasn't imagining things and then took my camera and tripod outside. By this time it was about 22:10 UT and quite dark with stars easily visible and the Moon and Jupiter low in the south-west. I took several shots of between 5 and 30 seconds exposure. The best, one of which is below, were of 10 seconds exposure with a 55 mm lens at f/4 on 400 ASA colour print film printed by Boots. The prints demonstrated beyond doubt that what I had seen really was noctilucent cloud: the wave-like structures visible in the prints were similar to those in references  and  below.
Noctilucent clouds occur at an altitude of over 80 km and therefore remain in sunlight and continue to glow long after sunset. (By comparison, most 'terrestrial' clouds occur below 10 km altitude.) The height of 80 km is significant because that is where an atmospheric temperature minimum of -110°C occurs. Noctilucent clouds are thought to be associated with the condensation of ice on particles of meteoritic dust in the atmosphere. Direct sampling by rockets has shown that when noctilucent cloud is visible there is between 100 and 1000 times more dust at a height of about 80 km than when there is no cloud. The dust particles themselves are between 0.05 - 0.5 micrometres in diameter: this is evidence of meteoritic origin, since there is no mechanism to raise such particles from the surface of the Earth to an altitude of 80 km. Photographs have revealed wind speeds of up to 650 kph associated with noctilucent clouds.
Noctilucent clouds form in the cold of the summer polar mesopause and can be seen when the Sun is between 6° and 16° below the horizon. The season for observing noctilucent clouds is from mid-May to mid-August, peaking for a few weeks on either side of the solstice. They are generally visible from latitudes of 50° - 70°: below 50° they do not form and above 70° it never becomes dark enough to see them. The UK is favourably placed for observations. Note that the only sighting of noctilucent clouds at a latitude of 45°N (lower than the usual minimum latitude) was in 1908 following the Tanguska meteorite impact - which lofted a considerable quantity of dust into the upper atmosphere.
The 1880s saw the first reports of noctilucent clouds. Serious scientific study of the phenomenon began as early as 1896 when simultaneous photographs with cameras 35 km apart showed the clouds to be at an altitude of 80 km. Reports of sightings were increasingly frequent in the late 20th Century, probably as astronomers became more skilled at recognising the phenomenon.
Amateurs are largely responsible for observations of noctilucent clouds; however, there are some academic groups interested, for example the University of Colorado. For photography, a film speed of 200 ASA is suitable with exposure times ranging from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds at stops from f2 to f5.6. A rigorous report of an observation of noctilucent cloud should record the time of observation, height of cloud, position in azimuth, structure and visibility, and should be repeated every 15 minutes. The following categories should be used in reports.
- Veil: a structureless sheet.
- Bands: straight or slightly curved lines, parallel or crossing at shallow angles.
- Billows or waves: herringbone or ripple patterns.
- Whirls: complete or partial loops.
- Patches: small discrete units.
- Very weak: barely visible against the twilight sky.
- Clearly detected: but having low brightness.
- Clearly visible: standing out sharply against the twilight sky.
- Very bright: attracting the attention of casual observers.
- Extremely bright: noticeably illuminating objects facing it.
References and further reading:
 Astronomy Now, July 1981, p31.
 Fred Schaaf, Sky & Telescope, 1993, 86(1), p.66 and 69.
 Robert K Soberman, Scientific American, June 1963.