NASA Fires a Rocket into the Northern Lights, for Science!

Not only is it aurora season in Alaska, its sounding rocket season! NASA started launching a series of five sounding rockets from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska to study the aurora. The first of these rockets for this year, a Black Brant IX, was launched in the early morning hours of February 22, 2017.

The instrument on board was an Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Groundbased Low Altitude StudieS (ISINGLASS) instrumented payload, which studies the structure of an aurora.

The Black Brant IX sounding rocket carried instruments to an altitude of 225 miles as part of the Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Groundbased Low Altitude StudieS or ISINGLASS mission. Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach.

This is not the first sounding rocket flight from Poker Flats to launch into an aurora. Starting in 2009, this research has been taking place to help refine current models of aurora structure, and provide insight on the high-frequency waves and turbulence generated by aurorae. This helps us to better understand the space weather caused by the charged particles that come from the Sun and how it impacts Earth’s lower atmosphere and ionosphere.

“The visible light produced in the atmosphere as aurora is the last step of a chain of processes connecting the solar wind to the atmosphere,” said Kristina Lynch, ISINGLASS principal investigator from Dartmouth College. “We are seeking to understand what structure in these visible signatures can tell us about the electrodynamics of processes higher up.”

While humans don’t feel any of these effects directly, the electronic systems in our satellites do, and as our reliance on satellite technologies grow, researchers want to have all the data they can to help avert problems than can be caused by space weather.

The rocket sent a stream of real-time data back before landing about 200 miles downrange shortly after the launch.

The launch window for the remaining rockets runs through March 3. ISINGLASS will fly into what is known as a dynamic Alfenic curtain, which is a form of electromagnetic energy thought to be a key driver of “discrete” aurora – the typical, well-defined band of shimmering lights about six miles thick and stretching east to west from horizon to horizon.

NASA says that the five launches in the 2017 sounding rocket campaign will add to our body of information about this space through which our spacecraft and astronauts travel near Earth. By studying the interaction of the sun and its solar wind with Earth’s upper atmosphere, scientists are also able to apply the knowledge to other planetary bodies — helping us understand these interactions throughout the universe as well.

Here’s an infographic from NASA about the 2017 sounding rocket launches from Poker Flats:

Read more: NASA

What Left These Spooky Trails in the Sky?

Ball lightning? Spectral orbs? Swamp gas? Early this morning, May 7, these eerie glowing trails were seen in the sky above the Marshall Islands and were captured on camera by NASA photographer John Grant. Of course, if NASA’s involved there has to be a reasonable explanation, right?

For a larger image (and to see what really caused the trails) click below:

Credit: NASA/Jon Grant
Credit: NASA/John Grant

Although it might look like cheesy special effects, these colorful clouds are actually visible trails that were left by two sounding rockets launched from Roi Namur in the Marshall Islands, at 3:39 a.m. EDT on May 7. The rockets were part of the NASA-funded EVEX experiment to study winds and electrical activity in the upper atmosphere.

The red cloud was formed by the release of lithium vapor and the white-and-blue tracer clouds were formed by the release of trimethyl aluminum (TMA). These clouds allowed scientists on the ground from various locations in the Marshall Islands to observe neutral winds in the ionosphere.

“Neutral winds are one of the hardest things to study,” said Doug Rowland, an EVEX team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “One can’t physically see the wind, and it is difficult to measure from the ground, so we use the TMA as a tracer.”

Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)
Launch of the second EVEX rocket on the morning of May 7. The plume from the first is visible on the left. (NASA/John Grant)

The EVEX (Equatorial Vortex Experiment) rockets were launched 90 seconds apart. By staggering the launches the two rockets were able to gather data simultaneously at two altitudes through the ionosphere.

Beginning about 60 miles (96 km) up, the ionosphere is a crucial layer of charged particles surrounding our planet. This layer serves as the medium through which high frequency radio waves – such as those sent down to the ground by satellites – travel. Governed by Earth’s magnetic field, high-altitude winds, and incoming material and energy from the sun, the ionosphere can be calm at certain times of day and at other times turbulent, disrupting satellite signals.

The EVEX experiment is designed to measure events in two separate regions of the ionosphere to see how they work together to drive it from placid and smooth to violently disturbed. Such information could ultimately lead to the ability to accurately forecast this important aspect of space weather.

Read more here.

Image source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr

Armadillo Aerospace Successfully Lauches a Sounding Rocket from Spaceport America

Over the weekend Armadillo Aerospace successfully launched an advanced sounding rocket from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The launch took place on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011 at 11:00 a.m. (MST), and the STIG A rocket reached its expected sub-orbital altitude of 41.91 km (137,500 feet). Below is an image of Earth taken by a camera on board the rocket.

This latest launch is the thirteenth vertical launch test from the Spaceport America Vertical Launch Complex since 2006.

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“This successful test of our “STIG A” reusable sub-orbital rocket technology represents major progress for the Armadillo Aerospace flight test program,” said Neil Milburn, Vice President of Program Management at Armadillo Aerospace. “The flight successfully demonstrated many of the technologies that we need for our manned sub-orbital program.”

The STIG is a long, sleek rocket designed for lower drag, high speed, high altitude flights. This rocket is aerodynamically optimized for high altitude flights with long 15 inches (38 cm) diameter cylindrical tanks instead of larger spherical tanks.

Armadillo requested that the test flight be a non-public, unpublished event, as the company is testing proprietary advanced launch technologies.

The company is one of the leading developers of reusable rocket-powered vehicles and plans to provide a platform for civilian access to suborbital space via a partnership with Space Adventures, Ltd. Armadillo Aerospace has flown over 200 flight tests with over a dozen different vehicles.

Armadillo Aerospace's STIG A rocket launches from Spaceport America. Credit: Space Adventures

On board the rocket was an experiment designed, built, tested, integrated, and performed by a team of undergraduate students at the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. The experiment studied a liquid and gas flow process that is sensitive to the gravity and acceleration levels encountered during spaceflight.
“Spaceport America has been an ideal launch facility for this kind of vehicle R&D testing activity,” said John Carmack, President and CTO of Armadillo Aerospace.

Officials from the spaceport were please at the launch’s success as well.

“Spaceport America continues to set the precedent for safe, efficient, effective service for commercial spaceflight customers,” said NMSA Executive Director Christine Anderson. “We are extremely pleased to support Armadillo Aerospace as they conduct their high altitude vehicle flight testing, and look forward to hosting their NASA-funded suborbital research launches.”

Source: Spaceport America

Ride Along with a Sounding Rocket

Earlier this year, a sounding rocket was launched to measure solar energy output and calibrate the EVE instrument on the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Two on-board cameras recorded the rocket’s journey, allowing the rest of us to tag along from Earth to space and back again. Make sure you listen to all the sounds as well as enjoy the views.

Video courtesy Goddard Space Flight Center.

India Launched 11 Rockets to Monitor Eclipse

India launched a small fleet of rockets to monitor the effects of the annular solar eclipse that occurred today. A total of 11 Rohini sounding rockets – suborbital rockets designed for scientific experiments – were launched from several different sites, including the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota. These rockets, launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), carried instruments to measure the effect the eclipse had on the Earth’s atmosphere.

The eclipse – which lasted 11 minutes and 8 seconds at its peak, was visible to observers in Africa, southern Asian countries, India and China. This was an annular eclipse, meaning that the Moon blocked the Sun’s light enough for a bright ring to be seen around the silhouette of the Moon, and was the longest such eclipse of the millennium.

There are several phenomena that take place in the lessening of the Sun’s rays during an eclipse. When the solar radiation drops during an eclipse, the ionization that occurs in the atmosphere is temporarily lowered, causing disruptions in the Equatorial Electrojet – a ribbon of electric current that flows east to west near the equator.

The temperature and wind of the atmosphere are also altered by the cessation of sunlight, and were measured by the rockets. India launched five rockets yesterday to record pre-eclipse data, and then six more were launched today to measure the changes after the eclipse, which peaked at 1:15pm local time. Over 90% of the Sun’s light was blocked near the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), which lies on the southern tip of India, and was well-placed to measure the eclipse.

“Results of these experiments will coordinate ground-based eclipse observations with in situ space measurements. Interpretation of eclipse data together with space data is expected to give new insights to the earlier eclipse observations,” the ISRO wrote in a press release.

Sounding rockets have been used by other space agencies to monitor the ionosphere and the role of the Sun in atmospheric phenomenon. In 1994, NASA cooperated with Brazil on the Guara Campaign, named after the Guara bird that is native to Brazil. In August-October of that year, NASA launched a total of 33 rockets with various experiments to measure the photochemistry and plasma of the atmosphere near the equator. All of the rockets were launched from the Alcantara launch range in Brazil.

Source: ISRO press release