On January 26, 2015 just after midnight, University of Alaska scientists launched four sounding rockets into the northern lights.
A sounding rocket, sometimes called a research rocket, is an instrument-carrying rocket designed to take measurements and perform scientific experiments from about 50 to 1,500 kilometers (31 to 932 mi) above the surface of the Earth, an altitude between weather balloons and satellites.
Auroras – the northern and southern lights – are caused by the interaction of solar winds (variable streams of charged plasma from the sun) and Earth’s atmosphere. Researchers launched the rocket-borne experiments to learn more about how auroras heat the planet’s atmosphere.
All of the rocket-borne experiments were launched from Poker Flats, Alaska, a site often used by NASA for suborbital sounding rocket launches.
What a cool thing to see, except the temperature at the time was around -43ºF!
Two days later, on January 28, 2015, NASA-funded scientists launched a fifth rocket-borne experiment into the northern lights in order to learn more about how they heat the planet’s atmosphere.
The Auroral Spatial Structures Probe (ASSP) was launched at 5:41 a.m. on January 28 from the Poker Flat Research Range about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Fairbanks, Alaska. The research team captured the two time-lapse photos below of the Oriole IV sounding rocket and payload amidst the aurora borealis (top photo) and at the moment of liftoff (bottom photo).
The ASSP carried seven instruments to study the electromagnetic energy that can heat the thermosphere — the second highest layer of Earth’s atmosphere — during auroral events.
Bottom line: In late January, 2015 researchers launched sounding rockets into the northern lights from Poker Flats, Alaska to learn more about how auroras heat the planet’s atmosphere.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.