On February 18, 2012, a NASA-funded research team launched a rocket from Alaska’s Poker Flat Research Range straight into the heart of the aurora borealis, or northern lights to investigate what’s called ‘space weather.’ The scientists are trying to learn how the aurora borealis affects satellite signals here on Earth.
The project, called the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfven resonator mission, involves 60 scientists, engineers, technicians, and graduate students from several institutions and NASA.
Steven Powell, Cornell senior engineer in electrical and computer engineering and principal investigator for the mission, has been stationed at the rocket launch site, 30 miles north of Fairbanks, since the end of January. He said:
We’re investigating what’s called ‘space weather.’ Space weather is caused by the charged particles that come from the sun and interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. We don’t directly feel those effects as humans, but our electronic systems do.
One of the scientists’ main goals is to investigate the effects of space weather on GPS satellites. Powell said:
We are becoming more dependent on these signals. This will help us better understand how satellite signals get degraded by space weather and how we can mitigate those effects in new and improved GPS receivers.
The rocket is a 46-foot Terrier-Black Brant model that was sent arcing through the aurora 217 miles above Earth, sending a stream of real-time data back before landing 200 miles downrange. Instruments on board sampled electrons in the upper atmosphere that are affected by a form of electromagnetic energy called Alfven waves. These waves are thought to be a key driver of “discrete” aurora — the typical, well defined and famously shimmering lights that stretch across the horizon.
Bottom line: In an effort to understand how ‘space weather’ affects satellite signals here on Earth, a NASA-funded research team launched a rocket from Alaska’s Poker Flat Research Range straight into the heart of the aurora borealis – or northern lights – on February 18, 2012.