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Why NASA Is Firing Rockets At The Northern Lights

NASA and Utah State University have aimed their tiny probes at the aurora.

In the middle of the night on January 28, a team of NASA and university scientists found themselves doing something a bit different: firing rockets at the aurora borealis, better known as the “Northern Lights.” The rocket launch fired six disposable probes into a Northern Lights display in Alaska, with the goal of learning more about the heating and expansion of Earth’s thermosphere during the aurora. Because auroras are closely related to phenomenon known as “solar storms” that can impact the behavior of satellites and electrical systems on Earth, information gained from the project will directly benefit the space agency.

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The rocket launch consisted of firing an Oriole IV rocket equipped with six different payloads directly at the Northern Lights from an Air Force facility in Alaska. It isn’t the first time rockets have been fired at the Northern Lights in the name of science; the practice is one of the main ways researchers learn about the science behind the aurora. However, this launch was notable because of the small mini-probes in the rocket payload. NASA and Utah State University, which collaborated on the project, had to time the launch to coincide both with an aurora borealis display and favorable weather at their home base at Alaska’s remote Poker Flat Research Range.

A NASA Oriole IV suborbital sounding rocket blasts off
from the Poker Flat Research Range, Alaska today at 3:41 a.m. (MST) carrying six research payloads built by the Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory into the aurora borealis as part of NASA’s Auroral Spatial Structures Probe mission. Photo: NASA

“The successful launch of the Auroral Spatial Structures Probe (one of the probes launched) will enable scientists and satellite operators to better understand the energy processes during auroral activity in the thermosphere and its effects on satellites as they orbit Earth,” says Utah State’s Charles Swenson. “Solar winds produce electric currents in the upper atmosphere where auroral activity occurs, and those currents produce heat that can expand the thermosphere which increases the drag on satellites significantly.”


He added that one of the unique aspects of this launch is that, rather than getting measurements from one rocket being fired at the aurora, measurements were distributed across the different trajectories the rocket and the probes traveled through. Each of the probes was approximately six inches in diameter and weighed approximately seven pounds. The aurora borealis is a bright display of charged particles entering the atmosphere which creates either glowing or curtain-like phenomena in the Arctic sky.