Aurora experiments launch into Alaskan skies
A series of five suborbital sounding rockets will be launched into Alaska airspace later this month to help scientists better understand the state’s atmosphere, specifically the famous Northern Lights.
The rockets will be carrying scientific instruments used in two aurora-based experiments studying their effects on Earth. The launches will occur in coordination with aurora activity through Jan. 27 from the Poker Flats Research Range near Fairbanks.
One experiment focuses on the interactions between Earth’s magnetic fields and solar flares. While observers see the beautiful colors dancing in ribbons across the night sky, scientists wonder whether that activity reflects the electric currents in the atmosphere.
“Electric currents, driven by the solar wind when encountering Earth’s magnetic field, exist in and around the region where aurora occur,” said Charles Swenson, principal investigator from the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, in a statement about the experiment. “These invisible currents heat the thin air of the upper atmosphere of Earth.”
The heating of the thermosphere can cause an expansion of the atmosphere, which in turn can alter the course of satellites in orbit. This is known as satellite drag, and can cause a temporary loss in cell phone coverage, among other issues.
The second experiment to go up will allow scientists to observe and study turbulence. Trimethyl aluminum vapor trails will be released above Earth’s surface, creating a visible pattern that can be photographed from ground stations.
“Recent solar storms have resulted in major changes to the composition of the upper atmosphere above 49 miles, where enhancements in nitrogen compounds have been found,” said Dr. Richard Collins, scientist with the Geophysical Institute. “These compounds can be transported into the middle atmosphere where they can contribute to ozone destruction.”
Sometimes transport of compounds does not occur, due to meteorological conditions. Models used by scientists to quantify and describe this pattern show a wide variety of measurements, explained Collins, making it difficult to make any definitive determination.
“Describing such processes in circulation models is of broad interest, as turbulent and diffusive processes contribute to transport of heat and constituents throughout the atmosphere, impacting everything from pollution studies at the surface of the Earth to satellite drag in space,” Collins said.
The vapor trails will not pose a risk to the public’s health or the environment, according to Miguel Larsen, principal investigator from Clemson University.
The Poker Flats range is host to a variety of similar experiments utilizing the short-range rockets every year by scientists from universities around the world.