A Brief History of Poker Flat

Poker Flat Research Range frong gate sign

Space science research on the Northern Lights that dance in winter skies above Alaska began at the University of Alaska in the 1920's, but it wasn't until after the Geophysical Institute was established by Congress in 1946 that scientists became interested in using sounding rockets as a major means of studying the aurora.

In the early 1960's, Neil Davis of the Geophysical Institute decided to create a research rocket facility in Alaska that would have the unique advantages of being located near a permanent staff of university space physics scientists determined to study the aurora, and of being located at a site just to the south of the zone where most auroras occur.

Davis' proposed range competed with a nearly identical $30 million facility built as a joint American-Canadian venture in the 1950's at Fort Churchill, Canada, on the shores of Hudson Bay. However, the Fort Churchill range had the major disadvantage of lying enough inside the auroral zone to limit research to only one kind of aurora.

In 1968, developments elsewhere called for a minimal expeditionary rocket range to be built in Alaska solely to support the launch of six barium-release rocket of the Department of Defense. The Geophysical Institute secured a 25-year lease from the State of Alaska on about 5,000 acres of land on which to build the site, which later became known as Poker Flat Research Range. The title to much of the land has since been transferred to the university.

The federal crews wanted to shut down the rocket range shortly after they completed their barium-release experiments, but Davis had other plans. He agreed to provide necessary ground-based observations of the chemical releases from various locations only if he could launch his own NASA-sponsored, auroral zone rocket from PFRR, rather than from Fort Churchill as previously scheduled. The federal crews agreed, and Davis' rocket became the first civilian agency launch from the new range, establishing a precedent for the future.

All seven rockets were successful and PFRR itself was launched into existence. Geophysical Institute scientists kept the range going on a shoestring budget for years until the facility proved both workable and scientifically useful. When 13 sounding rocket launches were scheduled for the winter of 1970, new construction began. The range was staffed and support instrumentation was installed.

The basic facilities at PFRR were completed in 1972. Two years later, a geophysical observatory was constructed to house riometers, magnetometers, and other instruments used in routine experiments, along with all-sky cameras and meridian scanning photometers to support rocket launches. Since then, the range has undergone continual improvement.

The increasing sophistication of the experiments flown demanded that range facilities improve accordingly. The range now incorporates rocket assembly and launching capabilities, telemetry receiving stations, and ground-based diagnostics needed for launch decisions concerning space, aeronomy, and atmospheric science experiments. Ground-based instrumentation allows monitoring of auroral activity, magnetic storms, ionospheric perturbations and other space disturbances in real-time.

Technology continues to change at a rapid rate, and various improvements to range are underway at present. Constant upgrades enable the range to handle the increasingly complex missions and payloads that researchers need to study the complicated relationships between the different regions of the atmosphere, earth's magnetic field, and solar radiation.