Image 1 - Research Rocket Fired Into The Northern Lights
February 22, 2012

Research Rocket Fired Into The Northern Lights

On Saturday, a team of U.S. researchers launched a two-stage rocket containing some 500 pounds worth of instruments through an aurora, with the hopes that they will be able to learn more about how the northern lights are created and about the complex relationship between the Earth and the Sun.

According to Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Reporter Sam Friedman, the 46-foot NASA rocket was launched from the Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska at 8:41pm on February 18.

The rocket contained roughly a dozen different instruments which measured the magnetic and electronic forces during its flight, which lasted 10 minutes and reached peak heights of approximately 200 miles over the village of Venetie.

The research team included representatives from Cornell University, Dartmouth University, the University of New Hampshire (UNH), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the University of Oslo. Friedman reports that a total of 60 researchers were on hand for the launch, which required more than two and a half years' worth of preparation.

Instruments on board the Terrier-Black Brant rocket also took samples of charges particles located in Earth's ionosphere, according to a UNH press release.

Those upper-atmospheric waves "get sloshed back and forth by a specific form of electromagnetic energy known as Alfvén waves," the university said, noting that these waves are "thought to be a key driver of 'discrete' aurora -- the typical, well-defined band of shimmering lights about six miles thick and stretching east to west from horizon to horizon."

"The ionosphere, some 62 miles up, is one end of the guitar string and there's another structure over a thousand miles up in space that is the other end of the string. When it gets plucked by incoming energy we can get a fundamental frequency and other 'harmonics' along the background magnetic field sitting above the ionosphere," added Marc Lessard, an associate professor at the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space as well as the Department of Physics.

Results from the instruments onboard the rocket were sent back to the investigators in real time, UNH said.

Principle investigator Steve Powell, a senior engineer at Cornell University, told Friedman that he and his colleagues were able to obtain "10 minutes of“¦ very high-quality data." He added that he believed the data will eventually be presented at scientific conferences and/or be published in various journals, though it needs to be analyzed first -- a process that Powell believes will take months.


Image 1: A fisheye photo taken by an automated camera near the entrance gate at the Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo by Donald Hampton.

Image 2: A two-stage Terrier-Black Brant rocket arced through aurora 200 miles above Earth as the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA) mission investigated the underlying physics of the northern lights. Stage one of the rocket has just separated and is seen falling back to Earth. Photo by Terry E. Zaperach, NASA.


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