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Poker Flat rocket to probe aurora's secrets

Suzanna Caldwell
A NASA-funded collaborative research team launched a rocket Feb. 18 from Alaska's Poker Flat Research Range to collect data from the heart of the aurora some 202 miles above Earth.
Terry Zaperach, NASA
The first stage of the rocket falls back down to Earth, while the second stage and payload continue upward through and above the aurora.
Craig Heinselman/SRI International
The northern lights dance over the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska.
Terry Zaperach, NASA
A NASA-funded collaborative research team launched a rocket Feb. 18 from Alaska's Poker Flat Research Range to collect data from the heart of the aurora some 202 miles above Earth.
Mark Conde, University of Alaska Fairbanks
The northern lights on Feb. 18, 2012, during a rocket launch at Poker Flat in Interior Alaska.
Terry Zaperach, NASA photo
The northern lights on Feb. 18, 2012, during a rocket launch at Poker Flat in Interior Alaska.
Terry Zaperach, NASA photo
A NASA rocket launched from the Poker Flats Research Range on Feb. 6, 2013, as viewed from near Cleary Summit.
Merrick Peirce photo
A NASA rocket launched from the Poker Flats Research Range on Feb. 6, 2013.
NASA photo
A NASA rocket launched from the Poker Flats Research Range on Feb. 6, 2013.
NASA photo
Aurora over the Poker Flats Research Range on the night of Feb. 6, 2013.
NASA photo
On the night of Feb. 4, 2013, NASA Goddard scientists watched a lighted wind-weighting balloon launch to measure the winds and see if conditions were acceptable for a sounding rocket launch in Poker Flats, Alaska. Wind-weighting balloons help the launch team correct the rocket trajectory to make up for low level winds.
NASA/Goddard/Chris Perry
On the night of Feb. 2, 2013, a team of NASA scientists waited in Poker Flats, Alaska to see if conditions were right to launch the VISIONS sounding rocket mission (VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm). The mission studies what makes the aurora, and how it affects Earth’s atmosphere.
NASA/Goddard/Chris Perry
Swirls of green and red appear in an aurora over Whitehorse, Yukon on the night of Sep. 3, 2012.
Courtesy David Cartier, Sr.
An all-sky image during the rocket launch taken by an automated camera near the entrance gate of the Poker Flat Research Range.
Donald Hampton/UAF via Cornell Chronicle
A NASA-funded collaborative research team launched a rocket Feb. 18 from Alaska's Poker Flat Research Range to collect data from the heart of the aurora some 202 miles above Earth.
Mark Conde, University of Alaska Fairbanks

If the auroras align this week, scientists at the Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks may get a chance to launch a NASA rocket into space.

The launch window extends from Saturday until Feb. 17, depending on aurora activity. Scientists are hoping to launch the rocket experiment “VISIONS” -- short for “VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm” -- according to a press release from the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute.

The rocket is headed into the Arctic skies in an effort to determine how the aurora heats and slingshots oxygen out of the upper atmosphere. While the wind is not very dense, its flow away from the planet impacts the space environment, such as the behavior of the Van Allen radiation belt.

Douglas Rowland, of the Space Weather Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, is the principal investigator. He said in the release the wind is strongest when the aurora is active, but that there's much scientists don't know about how much oxygen gets lifted out of the atmosphere, including how long it takes and at what altitude is the auroral wind is strongest.

According to a press release from NASA, the VISIONS mission will highlight the advantages of using a sounding rocket instead of a satellite to gather information. In addition to being smaller and less expensive, the rockets provide vertical profiles of the auroral environment. The rockets can also be launched from the right place at just the right time when aurora activity peaks. Satellites can only encounter an aurora when by chance they through one.

After launch, the rocket will head into the auroral wind -- at up to 500 miles altitude according to the release -- and map out oxygen atoms as they accelerate out of the upper atmosphere.

Despite the two week window, the rocket -- which when fully assembled is longer than a school bus, with a payload of 17 feet -- will have a short flight of 15 minutes to the auroras, before dropping into the Arctic Ocean.

The Poker Flats range is located 30 miles north of Fairbanks. It's the only university-owned rocket-launching facility in the world. It has been in operation since the late 1960s.

According to Aurora Forecasting from the Geophysical Institute, aurora levels are expected to low to moderate through the weekend. 

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com