Atmospheric Research with Astronomical Facilities

Ground-based astronomical observations are affected by the Earth’s atmosphere. The light of an astronomical target is scattered and absorbed. Moreover, atmospheric emission and scattered light from other directions is added to the detected flux. Hence, each observation contains information on the status of the atmosphere during the exposure. In view of the large amounts of data that are produced by astronomical facilities each night, the archived data are a treasure for atmospheric sciences. In particular, the use of telescopes with main mirrors of the 10 m class allows one to study the Earth’s atmosphere at high spectral resolution, high spatial resolution, and high signal-to-noise ratio, which is not possible with the standard equipment of atmospheric scientists.
For this reason, we use spectroscopic data from the archive of the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory at Cerro Paranal in the Chilean Atacama desert to study properties of the Earth’s atmosphere that were difficult to investigate in the past. Spectra from the medium-to-high resolution spectrographs allow us to analyse the simultaneously observed wavelength range from 0.3 to 2.5 micron. In this way, we are able to study the intensities and variability of all prominent nocturnal airglow lines and bands, which are produced above 80 km by chemiluminescence. We plan to thoroughly check the quality of mesopause temperatures derived from only a few reference airglow lines, which is the most important method for studying the climate change in the upper atmosphere. Moreover, we investigate the intensity, variability, and origin of the airglow continuum, which is particularly in the near-IR almost unexplored due to instrumental limitations in the past. Finally, the Cerro Paranal is an ideal location for studying the properties of aerosol modes with long life times in the (sub)tropical troposphere and stratosphere. The low aerosol optical depths that can be measured there are hardly affected by local aerosol emission sources. It is only one of a few sites of aerosol research in the Southern Hemisphere.
The results of the proposed atmospheric studies will also be considered for an improvement of our night-sky radiance model for the large Chilean observatories, which is important for an accurate exposure time prediction for astronomical observations. We expect that astronomical data reduction procedures can benefit from this project.
The project is a close collaboration with the group from the Leopold Franzens Universität Innsbruck / Austria.

Faculty member active in this area: Stefan Kimeswenger

A composite sky model from visual light to infrared wavelengths. (Credit: Noll et al. doi: 10.1051/0004-6361/201219040)