The rocket, the laser, and the northern lights

By Phil Plait | February 26, 2012 7:00 am

Some pictures just have it all. Like, say, a rocket and a laser and an aurora:

OK, that’s awesome. All it needs is a rampaging T-Rex to be the greatest single picture ever taken. [Click to enalfvénate.]

So what you’re seeing here is a wide-angle lens time exposure of a rocket launch on February 18, 2012, from Fairbanks Alaska at the Poker Flat Research Range. The aurorae are obvious enough; they’re the green glow in the sky. The bright streak is the rocket going up, and the pink hook halfway up is the first stage dropping away — note how the streak dims from the ground up to that point, then brightens again when the second stage ignited.

The green streak on the left is a laser being shot into the sky. Lasers excite (give energy to) atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, and that can be used to measure what’s going on up there. The beam appears to curve because this is a wide angle lens which distorts the geometry of the image.

So why the launch? On board the rocket was the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA) mission, designed to measure the magnetic and electric fields high above the Earth during an aurora — so it’s no coincidence that you’re seeing the northern lights here. Alfvén waves are a way for magnetic fields to move energy around, and they’re generated in certain kinds of aurorae. By measuring them with MICA, we can learn more about how the Sun’s magnetically-driven interacts with Earth’s own magnetic field, producing aurorae. And it’s a good time to do this: the Sun has been spitting out lots of energy lately, which has been generating aurorae left and right. As we head into the peak of the current solar cycle — sometime next year, probably — it’ll be the green golden age for studying how it affects the Earth.

Image credit: Lee Wingfield, NASA Wallops

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science

Comments (24)

  1. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    this is a wide angle lens which distorts the geometry of the image.

    You can’t fool me. You’re just trying to hide the fact that Earth is cylindrical. My cosmology is confirmed!

  2. db26

    Is the aurorae the reason the laser stops? I’m sure this photo will make top pics of 2012, unless we all die on Dec.21st…

  3. Larry

    Actually, NBWAW, the curvature is predicted by Homer Simpson’s theory of a doughnut shaped universe. Please note that this theory has the interest of none other than Stephan Hawking.

  4. Pepijn

    @db26: I think the laser stops because of reaching the vanishing point and/or leaving the atmosphere (you wouldn’t be able to see the laser in a vacuum, as there would be no molecules to excite or bounce off of).

  5. Peterparker

    @db26 and @pepijn it’s actually much simpler. The laser does not stop. That’s just when the exposure of the camera stopped. Once the shutter of the camera closed the laser would have continued on its course…. Just like the rocket would. We don’t assume the rocket stops…. Do we?

  6. MaxFagin

    That was our rocket! I work in the lab at Dartmouth where we built the particle detectors for MICA. Our advisor got back last week and we spent most of our lab meeting just looking at beautiful pictures she had brought back of the aurora!

  7. You’re close, Phil, but to be the best of the best then it MUST also have vampires and pirates. If it has a T-Rex, vampires and pirates then, well, we’d all die of an awesome-overdose.

  8. That’s how we roll in Alaska, we won’t just sit around and watch the stuff. Unfortunately I missed the rocket because I was digging out the car, an unfortunate side-effect of too much aurora. That night was freaking unbelievable, got a lot of pictures anyway.

    One of my classmates in grad school at UAF was working with this project. He’s got some cool pics and stories about sitting out in Ft. Yukon waiting for the launch.

  9. Stephanie

    Do we know why the laser was being used? Was it related to the rocket launch?

  10. Spad31

    All we need now are the T-Rexs’ and F-14s!

  11. While it would indeed be cool to see a T-Rex in the shot, we all know it would be impossible. Tyrannosaurus Rex weren’t in Alaska. However, their cousin, the Albertosaurus…far more likely to see with a rocket and a laser in Alaska.

  12. Wzrd1

    Beautiful picture!
    I only wonder, what is the maximum radiation flux the sensor package can experience before malfunction. Tomorrow, we’re due a glancing blow from a CME, I wonder if the package could survive when all those charged particles start riding the magnetic field of the Earth. It would make excellent readings!

  13. Joseph G

    From the OP: By measuring them with MICA, we can learn more about how the Sun’s magnetically-driven interacts with Earth’s own magnetic field, producing aurorae.

    Phil, am I nuts, or is there a noun missing from there somewhere? Or am I not reading the sentence correctly? Is it “magnetically-driven Solar wind”?

  14. Jason A.

    Hey, I was part of that mission!

    #8 beat me to it, but at least I don’t have to link my own blog now :P

    Phil, you might be interested in some blog posts from people who were there. There’s mine, linked in comment #8, and Ian has a multi-part series here – http://astroian.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/mica-rocket-launch-part-1/

    #5, The laser is propagating at the speed of light, the exposure doesn’t see it ‘travel upwards’, it’s much too fast for that.

  15. Cindy

    I remember when I was in grad school (at Dartmouth) and a friend of mine had a rocket launch. I was on an observing run and my friend excitedly called saying her rocket launch was successful. I was the only one she knew was awake.
    One of the other grad students had his rocket fail and he had to go pick up the pieces the next day.

  16. Jeffersonian

    All it needs is a rampaging T-Rex

    Well, there’s a rampaging cockroach cloud…close?

  17. Gus

    Isn’t the apparent ending of the laser just an optical illusion like the one described at http://www.visualillusion.net/Chap10/Page03.php ?

  18. renke

    Spad31, nice Calvin&Hobbes reference, well done :)

    but IMO the picture needs sharks, Lasers are most awesome when attached to hungry fishes

  19. Nigel Depledge

    Peterparker (5) said:

    @db26 and @pepijn it’s actually much simpler. The laser does not stop. That’s just when the exposure of the camera stopped. Once the shutter of the camera closed the laser would have continued on its course…. Just like the rocket would. We don’t assume the rocket stops…. Do we?

    Erm . . . but the laser apparatus isn’t travelling – the beam of light it emits is travelling, and it’s going a damn sight faster than the rocket, so your explanation does not work.

    It seems to me that the best explanation is that we see the laser beam “end” where the density of air it passes through becomes too low for us to see the glow from the ionisation.

  20. Now that’s shiny* MICA! It really rocks. 8)

    Breathtakingly superluminous image there – cheers! :-)

    ———————————————————–

    * In the Firefly ‘verse sense of the word. Plus the brightness one too I ‘spose. Oh & for those non-geologally aware folks who don’t get the mica reference – click my name for a relevant wikipage. ;-)

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