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Sounding Rocket Science in the Arctic

We sent three suborbital sounding rockets
right into the auroras above Alaska on the evening of March 1 local time from the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks, Alaska.  


Sounding rockets are suborbital rockets that
fly up in an arc and immediately come back down, with a total flight time
around 20 minutes. 


Though these rockets don’t fly fast enough to
get into orbit around Earth, they still give us valuable information about the
sun, space, and even Earth itself. Sounding rockets’ low-cost access to space
is also ideal for testing instruments for future satellite missions.

Sounding rockets fly above most of Earth’s
atmosphere, allowing them to see certain types of light – like extreme
ultraviolet and X-rays – that don’t make it all the way to the ground because
they are absorbed by the atmosphere. These kinds of light give us a unique view
of the sun and processes in space.


The sun seen in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics

Of these three rockets, two were part of the
Neutral Jets in Auroral Arcs mission, collecting data on winds influenced by
the electric fields related to auroras. Sounding rockets are the perfect
vehicle for this type of study, since they can fly directly through auroras –
which exist in a region of Earth’s upper atmosphere too high for scientific
balloons, but too low for satellites.


The third rocket that launched on March 1 was part
of the ISINGLASS mission (short for Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and
Ground-based Low Altitude Studies). ISINGLASS included two rockets designed to
launch into two different types of auroras in order to collect detailed data on
their structure, with the hope of better understanding the processes that
create auroras. The initial ISINGLASS rocket launched a few weeks earlier, on Feb. 22, also from the Poker
Flat Research Range in Alaska.


Auroras are caused when charged particles
trapped in Earth’s vast magnetic field are sent raining down into the
atmosphere, usually triggered by events on the sun that propagate out into

Team members at the range had to wait until
conditions were just right until they could launch – including winds, weather,
and science conditions. Since these rockets were studying aurora, that means
they had to wait until the sky was lit up with the Northern Lights.


Regions near the North and South Pole are
best for studying the aurora, because the shape of Earth’s magnetic field
naturally funnels aurora-causing particles near the poles. 

But launching sensitive instruments near the
Arctic Circle in the winter has its own unique challenges. For example, rockets
have to be insulated with foam or blankets every time they’re taken outside –
including while on the launch pad – because of the extremely low temperatures.


For more information on sounding rockets,

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Source: NASA

Sounding Rocket Science in the Arctic

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