Scientists are now at Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks waiting for acceptable conditions to launch a National Aeronautics and Space Administration sounding rocket.
The rocket will gather information on space weather conditions that affect satellite communications. The launch window for the two-stage rocket opened Monday night, extending until March 2.
Steven Powell of Cornell University is the principal investigator on the mission to launch the rocket through an active aurora display over northern Alaska. Powell’s is the only mission scheduled to launch from Poker Flat this spring.
“We’re looking for a stable (auroral) arc, roughly over Fort Yukon,” Powell said by telephone from Poker Flat Research Range, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. There, he and other researchers, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Don Hampton and personnel from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, are busy preparing a two-stage, 46-foot rocket that will blast off from the range. An all-sky camera in Fort Yukon will show when aurora conditions are right. Narrow-field cameras in Fort Yukon and Venetie — manned by the UAF Geophysical Institute’s Hans Nielsen and graduate student Jason Ahrns as well as Venetie resident Lance Whitwell — will help scientists better define the aurora the rocket will fly through.
After two rocket motors power the payload out of Earth’s atmosphere, it will separate into two parts. One will then extend four wire antennas, each about 18-feet long, to measure the strong electric fields generated by the aurora. Twelve other antennas and sensors, up to 3 feet long, will extend from the other part of the payload to measure electrons and ions and how they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. In the 10 minutes it takes for the payload to arc 210 miles above Fort Yukon, the sensors will take thousands of measurements and transmit them back to Poker Flat.
“This will give us a better understanding of space weather, how it affects the way radio waves travel through the plasma,” Powell said. In this period of high sun activity called the solar maximum, ionized gases from the sun will likely interfere with Global Positioning System transmissions, satellite internet and other signals.
“We’re becoming more dependent on these signals,” Powell said. “(With this data), we can help designers of GPS and other receivers.”
Poker Flat Research Range is the largest land-based sounding rocket range in the world and is located on the Steese Highway. The UAF Geophysical Institute operates the range under contract to NASA. More than 300 major scientific sounding rockets have launched from the facility since it was founded in 1969.
Ned Rozell is a science writer at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Reprinted with permission.