NASA Sends Probes To Study Northern Lights

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WASHINGTON — NASA launched a suborbital sounding rocket Jan. 28 from the Poker Flat Research Range in the Alaskan interior that deployed seven payloads to study the aurora borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, NASA said.

The four-stage Oriole 4 sounding rocket lifted off at 1:41 a.m. local time carrying the Aurora Spatial Structures Probe (ASSP) built by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. The payload consisted of a main sensor and six smaller probes weighing about 3.3 kilograms each that were successfully deployed to measure energy levels in the aurora.

In a press release, the Space Dynamics Laboratory said the ASSP mission was unique in its ability to gather data from different vantage points over the aurora. The six smaller probes “are ejected from the rocket in different directions at high velocity, essentially acting as space buoys, to create a network of measurements that will allow us to see the structure of the aurora over a much wider area than was possible before,” Tim Neilsen, ASSP program manager at the Space Dynamics Lab, said in the release.

The northern lights are created by solar wind as it interacts with the outer layers of the atmosphere. Typically they occur in the thermosphere, a regional layer that lies between 90 and 500-1,000 kilometers of Earth’s surface.

By measuring the temporal and spatial variations of energy in the aurora, scientists hope to better predict heating and resulting expansion of the thermosphere, a phenomenon that can increase drag on orbiting satellites. “Satellite planners and operators will then be able to better plan and forecast the state of the thermosphere as they relate to satellite trajectories,” the laboratory said in its press release.

The ASSP mission capped a five-launch NASA sounding rocket campaign from Poker Flat to study the effects of solar wind on Earth’s atmosphere and meteorology.

The previous four launches carried payloads to the mesosphere, which lies just below the thermosphere down to an altitude of 55 kilometers, on Jan. 26. Two Mesosphere-Lower Thermosphere Turbulence Experiment payloads and two Mesospheric Inversion-layer Stratified Turbulence payloads were launched in succession aboard separate NASA Terrier-Improved Malemute and Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rockets, respectively.