We sent three suborbital sounding rockets
right into the auroras above Alaska on the evening of March 1 local time from the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Sounding rockets are suborbital rockets that
fly up in an arc and immediately come back down, with a total flight time
around 20 minutes.
Though these rockets don’t fly fast enough to
get into orbit around Earth, they still give us valuable information about the
sun, space, and even Earth itself. Sounding rockets’ low-cost access to space
is also ideal for testing instruments for future satellite missions.
Sounding rockets fly above most of Earth’s
atmosphere, allowing them to see certain types of light – like extreme
ultraviolet and X-rays – that don’t make it all the way to the ground because
they are absorbed by the atmosphere. These kinds of light give us a unique view
of the sun and processes in space.
Of these three rockets, two were part of the
Neutral Jets in Auroral Arcs mission, collecting data on winds influenced by
the electric fields related to auroras. Sounding rockets are the perfect
vehicle for this type of study, since they can fly directly through auroras –
which exist in a region of Earth’s upper atmosphere too high for scientific
balloons, but too low for satellites.
The third rocket that launched on March 1 was part
of the ISINGLASS mission (short for Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and
Ground-based Low Altitude Studies). ISINGLASS included two rockets designed to
launch into two different types of auroras in order to collect detailed data on
their structure, with the hope of better understanding the processes that
create auroras. The initial ISINGLASS rocket launched a few weeks earlier, on Feb. 22, also from the Poker
Flat Research Range in Alaska.
Auroras are caused when charged particles
trapped in Earth’s vast magnetic field are sent raining down into the
atmosphere, usually triggered by events on the sun that propagate out into
Team members at the range had to wait until
conditions were just right until they could launch – including winds, weather,
and science conditions. Since these rockets were studying aurora, that means
they had to wait until the sky was lit up with the Northern Lights.
Regions near the North and South Pole are
best for studying the aurora, because the shape of Earth’s magnetic field
naturally funnels aurora-causing particles near the poles.
But launching sensitive instruments near the
Arctic Circle in the winter has its own unique challenges. For example, rockets
have to be insulated with foam or blankets every time they’re taken outside –
including while on the launch pad – because of the extremely low temperatures.
That Close Call Back in 1995 — The Norwegian Black Brant Incident,
In the past 60 years there have actually been several incidents where the world was almost plunged into a nuclear holocaust. Many of these incidents were purely accidental, caused by things like radar blips resulting from flocks of geese or faulty early warning detection satellites. One of the most interesting close calls occurred in Norway, and is unique in that the incident happened in 1995, after the end of the Cold War.
On January 25th, 1995 a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched the Black Brant VII rocket from the Andøya Space Center in Norway. The purpose of the rocket was to collect scientific data on the aurora borealis over the Arctic Ocean. The rocket reached an altitude of 903 miles and eventually splashed down in the ocean off the coast of Svalbard. At the time most of the world believed the rocket launch was a routine test that occurred without incident. However, little did anyone know, the Russians nearly shit their pants over it.
The rocket traveled over an air corridor that stretches from minuteman III rocket sites in North Dakota. The scientists notified 30 countries, including Russia, of the launch, however the Russian government failed to pass on news of the launch to the Russian President and to the military. Russian early warning radar systems in Murmansk detected the object, which had a similar speed and flight pattern to that of a US Navy Trident missile. Immediately Russian High Command went on full alert, fearing the United States was launching a nuclear missile. While a single missile launch may not seem much of a threat compared to thousands of missiles in an all out nuclear strike, one possible scenario that the Russians feared was that of a high altitude nuclear detonation used as a prelude to all out nuclear war. A nuclear warhead would be detonated high in the atmosphere over Russia, and the resulting electromagnetic pulse would knock out the electrical grid, communications grid, and radar over a large portion of the country, leaving Russia completely vulnerable to an all out attack.
The full alert initiated by the rocket launch went all the way up to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Russian nuclear briefcase containing command codes was opened, the only time in history a nation’s nuclear briefcase was ever opened. This was especially scary because Boris Yeltsin had a reputation for being a hard drinker. Yeltsin’s alcohol problems were so bad that he was often drunk in public, at one point allegedly being found wandering the streets of Washington D.C. half naked after a particularly hard bender during a diplomatic visit.
As luck would have it, Boris Yeltsin was perfectly sober on January 25th, 1995, and thus he made a very wise decision to not retaliate but take a wait and see approach. Soon, it was realized that the rocket was traveling away from, not towards Russia, and thus was not a ballistic missile being fired at Russia. 24 minutes after launch, the rocket returned to Earth harmlessly. Disaster had been averted once again.
What is especially disturbing about the Norwegian rocket incident was that it occurred in the 1990′s at a time when Russian - American relations were at a peak. This wasn’t the middle of the Cold War, this wasn’t the Cuban Missile Crises with Nikita Khrushchev shouting “we will bury you!” while slamming his shoe on a podium. This was at at time when there was absolutely no reason to go to nuclear war. It just goes to show that in the modern nuclear age, even at the best of times civilization hangs on a very fine thread.
The camera obscura was an important scientific discovery back in ancient times. It helped us understand that light travels in straight lines, as eloquently demonstrated by 11th-century Arab scientist Alhazen. He discovered that a single ray of light beaming through a tent produced an inverted image of the scene outside.
You can recreate the revolutionary experiment yourself with a window, some cardboard, and a hole-poking device of your choice. We recommend a trident, as we always do.
Slap some cardboard slabs over the window and cover all other light sources, then jab a hole in the cardboard (you can make it smoother or rougher to adjust resolution):
Wait for your eyes to adjust and enjoy the free acid trip. Your room is now a rudimentary camera, generating an inverted image of the scary world outside. It’s reversed because the light beams reflecting from higher objects like trees or buildings travel down diagonally through the makeshift lens, and vice versa for objects down below.
We only know 4% of what the universe is made up of. Can we also know what lies beyond our galaxy … and if there are undiscovered forms of matter? Luckily, we have space messengers — cosmic rays — that bring us physical data from parts of the cosmos beyond our reach.
Cosmic rays were first discovered in 1912 by Victor Hess when he set out to explore variations in the atmosphere’s level of radiation, which had been thought to emanate from the Earth’s crust. By taking measurements on board a flying balloon during an eclipse, Hess demonstrated both that the radiation actually increased at greater altitudes and that the sun could not be its source. The startling conclusion was that it wasn’t coming from anywhere within the Earth’s atmosphere but from outer space. Our universe is composed of many astronomical objects. Billions of stars of all sizes, black holes, active galactic nuclei, astroids, planets and more.
During violent disturbances, such as a large star exploding into a supernova, billions of particles are emitted into space. Although they are called rays, cosmic rays consist of these high energy particles rather than the photons that make up light rays. What makes cosmic rays useful as messengers is that they carry the traces of their origins. By studying the frequency with which different particles occur, scientists are able to determine the relative abundance of elements, such as hydrogen and helium, within the universe. But cosmic rays may provide even more fascinating information about the fabric of the universe itself.
An experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, A.M.S., has recently been installed on board the International Space Station, containing several detectors that can separately measure a cosmic ray particle’s velocity, trajectory, radiation, mass and energy, as well as whether the particle is matter or antimatter. While the two are normally indistinguishable, their opposite charges enable them to be detected with the help of a magnet. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is currently measuring 50 million particles per day with information about each particle being sent in real time from the space station to the A.M.S. control room at CERN. Over the upcoming months and years, it’s expected to yield both amazing and useful information about antimatter, the possible existence of dark matter, and even possible ways to mitigate the effects of cosmic radiation on space travel.
As we stay tuned for new discoveries, look to the sky on a clear night, and you may see the International Space Station, where the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer receives the tiny messengers that carry cosmic secrets.