NASA Rockets to Explore Northern Lights Next Week

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Viewers at high latitudes are likeliest to see the effect—known as aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis in the southern—because the Earth's magnetic field draws the solar-charged particles toward the poles.

The same solar weather that triggers the aurora can also play havoc with radio and satellite transmissions as well as power grids. But scientists cannot predict the extent of the disruptions. The clues, they feel, lie in the upper atmosphere—the realm of "sounding" rockets.

NASA's sounding rockets range in size from single-stage Super Arcas at about 7 feet (2.1 meters) tall to the 65-foot (19.8 meters), four-stage Black Brant XII. The primary HEX rocket is 57 feet (17.3) tall.

Revitalizing the Rocket Program

At Poker Flat on Jan. 27, NASA launched the High Bandwidth Auroral Rocket, HIBAR, a sounding rocket, to measure high-frequency wave signals in the aurora.

"The speed at which data was required…was higher than could be done by a satellite passing the same way," said Roger Smith, director of the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, which owns and operates Poker Flat. "Also, with a satellite you could not choose when it could pass. Many of the experiments with rockets are designed to be done in exactly the right place at the right time."

A 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences champions suborbital explorers like sounding rockets as "critically important for the next generation of solar and space physics research." NASA should "revitalize" its suborbital program and "aggressively support development of a range of low-cost vehicles capable of launching payloads for scientific research," the report said.

At Poker Flat, Conde is scanning the skies for the moment to start the countdown. The HEX rockets are prepared to accumulate an enormous amount of data in their brief arc across the sky.

"We spent two years and $3 to $5 million, and the rocket will be in the air five minutes," Conde said. "I can't really think of anything else in science where people have so much riding on one moment."

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