Research rocket blasts through northern lights over Alaska

An all-sky image during the rocket launch was taken by an automated camera near the entrance gate of the Poker Flat Research Range Saturday Feb. 18, 2012.
Ryuho Kataoka / Tokyo Institute of Technology
A two-stage Terrier-Black Brant rocket is launched at the Poker Flat Research Range Saturday Feb. 18, 2012 outside Fairbanks. The rocket arced through the aurora borealis 200 miles above Alaska in a mission to investigate their effects on satellite signals. Stage one of the rocket has just separated and is beginning to fall back to earth. Cornell is leading the research team that includes the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dartmouth College, the University of New Hampshire, the Southwest Research Institute in Texas and Oslo University.
Lee Wingfield / NASA

FAIRBANKS -- A rocket that arced into the northern lights above Alaska Saturday night carried instruments designed to learn more about how "space weather" creates auroras from the interaction of solar particles with channels within the Earth's complex electromagnetic field.

The rocket, a two-stage, 46-foot Terrier-Black Brant vehicle, soared more than 185 miles above Earth into a shimmering green aurora over Fort Yukon before plummeting back to the ground a steaming, melted wreck some 200 miles north of its pad at Poker Flats. The top of its arc was over Venetie. The flight lasted 10 minutes, 25 seconds, according to a spokesman for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which operates the Poker Flats range 30 miles north of Fairbanks.

The mission was launched by a NASA-funded group of 60 researchers studying electrical and magnetic activity in the aurora borealis.

A practical effort of the research is to study how signals from GPS and other satellites are degraded over time by the interaction of solar particles with the Earth's magnetic field, according to researchers from two of the institutions participating in the experiment, Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.

Before their suborbital suicide mission ended, the rocket's two instrument packages flashed data to the ground about how electrons in the upper atmosphere are affected by electromagnetic energy called Alfven waves. Those waves are thought to be the main driver of auroras that form curtains of light in the northern and southern skies.

The scientists are studying how the energy in solar wind couples with the Earth's magnetic field, producing long, resonating structures more than 1,000 miles long -- like giant, tuned bass strings.

The scientific mission was timed to occur during the current period of high solar activity, when gasses from the sun could interfere with satellite signals.

Cornell is leading the research. In addition to Cornell and the University of New Hampshire, the other institutions involved are the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Dartmouth College, the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, and Oslo University.



Daily News staff and wire reports