NASA Successfully Launches Rocket to Study 'Northern Lights'

Rocket will help researchers understand the phenomena behind auroras


February 7, 2013

Swirls of green and red appear in an aurora over Whitehorse, Yukon, on the night of Sep. 3, 2012. NASA's VISIONS sounding rocket will study what makes the aurora and how it affects Earth’s atmosphere.

Thursday, NASA successfully launched a rocket designed to help researchers understand auroras, commonly known as the "Northern Lights."

The rocket called VISIONS flew to a height of more than 466 miles above earth (about the height of the International Space Station) in order to measure the escaping oxygen that's associated with auroras. The phenomenon is caused by the collision of highly-charged particles from space with earth's atmosphere and is usually only visible in Arctic or Antarctic regions. VISIONS was launched in Poker Flat, Alaska, about 30 miles north of Fairbanks.

"Everything at first blush looks like it went well and we hit some auroras," says Doug Rowland, principal investigator of the mission. As designed, the rocket flew for about 15 minutes before crashing into the Arctic Ocean.

Auroras are a fairly regular occurrence in the Arctic circle, with one happening "every couple days," according to Rowland. But a strong solar flare or other magnetic storm can cause a more intense show that is visible in more southern areas.

Scientists have long wondered why oxygen escapes Earth's atmosphere during an aurora. Rowland says the escaping oxygen "isn't enough to get worried about," but that VISIONS' readings will help scientists understand how oxygen is able to defy earth's gravity. When heated by charged particles, oxygen atoms can travel faster than 50 miles per second.

"The light is generated by the energetic electrons coming from outer space," he says. "But there's an opposite reaction from earth—the oxygen atoms are heated up and slingshotted out of the atmosphere."

VISIONS will hopefully be able to determine if the particles are able to be launched even further into space—perhaps even beyond near-Earth orbit.

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