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One Down, 3 to Go … Sounding Rocket Flies in Alaska to Study Auroras

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Posted February 23, 2017

The first of four sounding rockets scheduled for launch from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska to examine the structure of auroras was launched at 5:14 a.m. EST, Feb. 22, 2017.

The Black Brant IX sounding rocket carried instruments to an altitude of 225 miles as part of the Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Groundbased Low Altitude StudieS or ISINGLASS mission.

ISINGLASS, includes the launch of two rockets with identical payloads that will fly into two different types of auroras – an inverted-V arc and a dynamic Alfenic curtain. The launch window for the second rocket runs through March 3.

Phil Eberspeaker, chief of the Sounding Rocket Program office, said, “It was good to successfully launch the first of the two rockets for the ISINGLASS mission. Now our attention turns towards launching the remaining ISINGLASS rocket and the two rockets for the Neutral Jets in Auroral Arcs mission.”

A NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket soars skyward into an aurora over Alaska following a 5:13 a.m. EST, Feb. 22, launch from the Poker Flat Research Range. The rocket carried an Ionospheric Structuring: In Situ and Groundbased Low Altitude StudieS instrumented payload examining the structure of an aurora.
Credits: NASA/Terry Zaperach

The mission team is reviewing the data that was received during the flight.

Kristina Lynch, ISINGLASS principal investigator from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, said, “The visible light produced in the atmosphere as aurora is the last step of a chain of processes connecting the solar wind to the atmosphere. We are seeking to understand what structure in these visible signatures can tell us about the electrodynamics of processes higher up.”

The ISINGLASS payload includes the deployment of a sub-payload and also several instrumented deployable canisters. The use of these various miniature subsystems and the main payload will give researchers a multipoint view of spatial structures within the aurora.

In addition to the remaining ISINGLASS rocket, two additional rockets supporting the Neutral Jets in Auroral Arcs mission await launch prior to March 3.

Rob Pfaff, scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the principal investigator for the Auroral Arcs mission, said, “Electric fields drive the ionosphere which in turn are predicted to set up enhanced neutral winds within an aurora arc. This experiment will seek to understand the height-dependent coupling processes that create localized neutral ‘jets’ within the aurora and their associated heating and neutral structuring.”

For this mission, two 56-foot long Black Brant IX rockets will be launched nearly-simultaneously. One rocket is expected to fly to an apogee of about 107 miles while the other is targeted for 201 miles apogee. As with ISINGLASS, the mission uses ground based instruments together with those on the rocket payload.

Flying the two similar payloads simultaneously to different altitudes will provide researchers a vertical profile of the measurements within an aurora.

The launches from Alaska are supported through NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, which is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Orbital ATK provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations through the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding-rocket program for the agency.

Source: NASA

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