Poker Flat Research Range prepares rocket for launch

by Amy Hartley, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks
01 Feb 2013

Staff and scientists at Poker Flat Research Range are busy preparing for the opening of the 2013 launch window that will allow one NASA sounding rocket to take MILENA 2013 flight and arc through an active aurora display over northern Alaska. The launch window is scheduled to span Feb. 2 to 17, 2013. The rocket experiment is named VISIONS, short for “VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm.”

Douglas Rowland, of the Space Weather Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, is the principal investigator for VISIONS, a mission that will determine how the aurora heats and slingshots oxygen out of the upper atmosphere. The flow of oxygen from Earth’s upper atmosphere is known as the auroral wind. While this wind is not very dense, its flow away from the planet impacts the space environment, such as the behavior of the Van Allen radiation belt.

“We know that this wind is strongest when the aurora is active, but we don’t yet know how much oxygen gets lifted out of our atmosphere, how long it takes, at what altitude the wind blows strongest or what parts of the aurora are most efficient at driving it,” Rowland said.

To answer these questions, the VISIONS rocket will fly through the region where auroral wind is generated, up to 500 miles altitude. The sounding rocket consists of four specialized instruments riding in the payload of a four-stage Talos-Terrier-Oriole-Nihka sounding rocket. Along the rocket’s short flight, a Miniaturized Low-energy Energetic Neutral Atom imager, known as MILENA, will serve as a camera, mapping out the auroral wind detecting oxygen atoms as they accelerate out of the upper atmosphere. The fully assembled rocket is longer than a school bus, with the massive payload scaling 17 feet alone.

Rowland has served as co-investigator on two previous rocket projects launched from Poker Flat Research Range in the last decade.

The range is located 30 miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. Poker Flat Research Range is the only university-owned sounding rocket launching facility in the world. NASA personnel and scientists from across the nation have launched scientific sounding rockets from the facility since the late 1960s.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Poker Flat Research Range, at 907-455-2110.


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