Rockets set to launch from Poker Flat Research Range

The 2014 launch season at Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks opened Friday, January 24.

Scientists are preparing for an experiment that will launch a NASA sounding rocket over the aurora while observing beneath it using cameras based at a village in northern Alaska. The launch window for the experiment opens January 24 and extends to Feb. 6, 2013. A second, smaller test launch will follow.

Marilia Samara of the Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio, Texas, is the lead scientist on the aurora experiment. She will use three particle instruments and six electric and magnetic field probes that extend like arms from the rocket while it arcs 200 miles above the village of Venetie. Her goal is to learn more about the sun-Earth energy connection that powers the aurora and affects our satellites and Global Positioning Systems.

Her launch is a collaborative effort between co-investigators Robert Michell and Keiichi Ogasawara of the Southwest Research Institute, and John Bonnell of the University of California Berkeley. Sounding rocket teams from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and Poker Flat Research Range, which is operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, are supporting the launch.

Michell and Don Hampton of the UAF Geophysical Institute have set up a suite of ground-based imagers in Venetie, which is on the Chandalar River north of the Arctic Circle.

While Samara directs the launch of a 48-foot rocket from Poker Flat, Venetie resident Lance Whitwell will help operate the all-sky and narrow-field imagers. The researchers want to view an active aurora from directly beneath the curtain in Venetie at the same moment the rocket is flying over it.

“We’ll be going through precipitating electrons (with the rocket) while looking at the aurora structure (from the ground),” Samara said.

The two-stage rocket will deploy four telescopic and two fold-down arms to measure the heavenly electric field, the magnetic field and plasma density, while the particle detectors bolted on the front of the rocket measure the electrons responsible for the visible light of the aurora. The researchers’ goal is to launch the rocket on a clear, moonless night when the aurora is overhead at Venetie.

Even a less-than-fantastic display will allow instruments on the rocket to radio data back to Poker Flat that will be useful to the scientists and several graduate students. The scientists hope that this research might someday let them infer electrical properties about the aurora by using cameras stationed on the ground.

“If we fly over any aurora, we’ll get good science from it,” Samara said.

Students from the John Fredson School in Venetie will communicate with children from the Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children in San Antonio on school projects related to aurora and the launch.

Following Samara’s launch, researchers with the Geophysical Institute will use the facilities at Poker Flat to test a new launch vehicle they developed. Associate professor Mark Conde is the lead scientist on the project, the fruition of several years work by Jeff Rothman of the institute’s electronics shop. Members of the institute’s machine shop also built a custom launching rack for the mission.

Conde and Rothman will launch a 10-foot-long carbon-fiber rocket that will travel just three miles up at the highest point of its arc. Conde, a space physicist, saw a need for the small rocket as a low-cost way for scientists to test intricate parts of rocket experiments.

A ride on a full-scale rocket can cost as much as $1 million. Rothman, who designed and built the smaller rocket, sees it as a $10,000 solution for both established upper-atmospheric scientists and students who build rockets.

“You have to demonstrate to NASA that your technology is mature enough to fly on one of their vehicles,” Rothman said as he was creating the new rocket. “It’s a business opportunity for the GI to sell rides on the rocket.”

On this mission, the researchers will test the operation of GPS, compass and radio communications systems Kristina Lynch of Dartmouth College plans to eject from a full-scale rocket in the future.

PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Robert Michell and Marilia Samara, who researchers from the Southwest Research Institute who will launch a rocket over the aurora from Poker Flat Research Range soon. Photo courtesy of N. Rozell.