NASA Rocket Launches Into Aurora [PHOTOS]

By Lisa Raffensperger | March 4, 2014 5:15 pm

aurora rocket NASA

Early yesterday morning this was the predawn sight in northern Alaska: a NASA rocket launching straight into an aurora. And the feeling on the ground was one of relief. With luck, the mission will tell researchers more about the particles and electric fields that combine to produce one of nature’s most spectacular sights.

The rocket is part of the Ground-to-Rocket Electrodynamics–Electron Correlative Experiment, or GREECE, mission. The mission seeks to understand what combination of events set up “auroral curls”  swirling structures within aurorae.

The rocket launched on March 3, 2014 at 6:09 a.m. EST from Poker Flat, Alaska is a so-called sounding rocket. Sounding rockets are useful for low-cost missions, NASA explains:

Sounding rockets carry scientific instruments into space along a parabolic trajectory. Their overall time in space is brief, typically 5-20 minutes, and at lower vehicle speeds for a well-placed scientific experiment. The short time and low vehicle speeds are more than adequate (in some cases they are ideal) to carry out a successful scientific experiments. Furthermore, there are some important regions of space that are too low for satellites and thus sounding rockets provide the only platforms that can carry out measurements in these regions.

rocket liftoffSecond Time’s a Charm

Researchers had set up shop at Poker Flat once before to try to capture the aurora, between January 24 and February 6, but the right kind of auroras didn’t come along. Luckily yesterday’s auroral activity came just in time the study’s second window was February 24 to March 8, 2014.

The researchers were looking for curls in the aurora that look like cream swirling in a cup of coffee. When they spotted those conditions, they launched the rocket on a 10-minute flight right into the heart of the aurora.

“The conditions were optimal,” said Marilia Samara, principal investigator for the mission at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “We can’t wait to dig into the data.”

whole sky

[Via NASA]

Image credit: NASA/Christopher Perry

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: physics
  • Hunter Thames

    Fascinating!

  • John Compton

    I have long thought that the combination of electrons from solar winds, interaction with earths magnetic fields, free atmospheric oxygen and electrical discharge might make a good h2o generator. The water on this planet no dought came from multiple sources. Even small amounts of water vapor generated by auroral activity would be sizable after a few billion years. Oxygen liberated by life forms on earth fused with electrons from the sun may answer where did our water come from. Mars current lack of water may be due to atmospheric erosion, minimal auroral activity, lack of a planetry magnetic field and free oxygen to replace the loss.

  • Ramsur

    Where did the water come is an interesting question. The religious books all indicate that the earth was water in creation, so says Greek Mythology which also says that in the beginning there was Chaos; Hindu writings indicate that all life came from water; The first Testament indicates that there was nothing, until God ordered creation of the heavens and of earth, but Genesis does say He spoke from above the waters; There is not much more evidence except the scientific community tends to support life came from water.
    Yet there was so much water it seems unbelievable that life forms came first, before water! Somewhat impracticable; yet all heavenly observations do not yield water, just the lack of . Any further suggestions?

    • DaBear

      You’re asking a metaphysical question in a scientific venue ? I suggest you look for the answer in the Bible.

  • John Compton

    I wonder what happened to my post suggesting that auroral activity is one of the sources of water on earth?

    • John Compton

      I have long thought that the combination of
      electrons from solar winds, interaction with earth’s magnetic fields, free
      atmospheric oxygen and electrical discharge would make a good H2O generator.
      The water on this planet no doubt came from multiple sources. Even small
      amounts of water vapor generated by auroral activity would be sizable after a
      few billion years. Oxygen liberated by life forms on earth fused with electrons
      from the sun may answer where did our water come from. Mars current lack of
      water may be due to lack of a planetary magnetic field, minimal auroral
      activity, and no free oxygen to replace the losses due to atmospheric erosion
      and solar wind.

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