NASA launches rocket from Poker Flats Research Range to study aurora

Published: Mar. 14, 2022 at 5:10 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - NASA launched a research rocket from the Poker Flats Research Range to study an anomaly in the aurora.

According to Alexa Halford, Principal Investigator with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the project was formed with the goal of studying a specific aspect of the aurora known as “pulsating.”

“Typically when you think of the aurora you think of the kind of moving rivers of green light,” Halford explained. “The aurora that we captured actually had, during the break up, not just rivers of green light, but we were right underneath it so you could see kind of flashing white and yellow and pink lights as well. After all the exciting bits like that, then you get to this kind of more steady state where it’s just green patches that fill the sky, and they just slowly kind of move on and off. We call that the pulsating aurora. If you look inside of those patches, you can actually see even faster modulations, and that is what we were really hoping to capture - and luckily we did.

Halford continued, “The colors are associated with two different things. The colors are effectively telling you what heights a lot of the auroras are at, as well as what energy of electrons is being lost from the magnetosphere.”

The rocket was equipped with a variety of instruments to help document the pulsating aurora, including observing particles, with the launch taking place in the early hours of the morning on March 5th.

“Once we all get situated and get the data back,” Halford elaborated, “we’re really excited to start diving into it and actually seeing what we did get out of it. But what we think we got out of it was all these different particles coming down... capturing those... then with images, being able to tell if those particles are the ones that caused the aurora and how the structures we see in those particle distributions match the structures we see. That’s something that we we hope to get, and it’s really hard to get because it turns out even though the particles follow magnetic field lines, [those] lines are invisible - so it’s really hard to trace. We’re hoping that we made some more steps forward and everything is pointing to the idea that we did. So that’s exciting, that’s really exciting.”

One hurdle the crew had to overcome was finding the perfect window in the weather conditions to ensure a successful launch according to Halford. “As a scientist, we were hoping for clear skies, and clear skies also over Fort Yukon and Poker Flat because that’s where we had our main cameras. In order to launch the rocket, you needed then also to have low winds because if it’s too windy... you don’t want to launch during that.”

Halford concluded, “So you needed to have relatively clear skies. You couldn’t have effectively low lying clouds or fog in order to launch the rocket. So no snow, preferably, nothing that would have snow or rain or things like that.”

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