Sounding Rocket Science in the Arctic
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.
The sun seen in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite.
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 space.
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.
For more information on sounding rockets, visit www.nasa.gov/soundingrockets.
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