NASA launches rocket from Poker Flat to collect data on aurora

by Sam Friedman/

FAIRBANKS — Spectators within sight of the Poker Flat Research Range got two aerial shows Saturday night — active northern lights and a two-stage rocket launch timed to send 500 pounds of instruments through the aurora.

The 46-foot NASA rocket was launched at 8:41 p.m. Saturday when researchers had word the aurora was active over the Steese Highway launch site and downrange in northern Alaska. The rocket reached its highest point about 200 miles in the sky above the village of Venetie before falling back to the earth farther north.

About a dozen instruments measured the electronic and magnetic forces during the 10-minute flight. Researchers hope the data will improve their understanding of how storms of charged particles from the sun affect satellite communications on Earth and more generally how solar storms interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. The aurora is one symptom of this interaction.

“We’ve waited around a week or so for just the perfect moment to launch it,” said principle investigator Steve Powell, a senior engineer at Cornell University. “While it’s just 10 minutes of data it’s very high-quality data.”

From first glance, he said, it’s likely the data will make its way into scientific conferences and journals, although it will take months for it to be analyzed.

Some 60 researchers came to Fairbanks for the launch. They had been preparing for the launch for about 2 1/2 years and spent about a week waiting for the right solar activity. Researchers include scientists from Cornell, Dartmouth University, the University of New Hampshire, the Southwest Research Institute and the University of Oslo in Norway.

They likely will propose another Alaska launch in a few years, Powell said.

“It’s a great place to launch a rocket,” he said.

The Poker Flat Research Range is operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute under contract to NASA and has been the site of more than 300 launches since it opened in 1969.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.

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