NASA Sounding Rocket Flies Through Northern Lights

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A NASA-funded sounding rocket launched Feb. 18 from Alaska’s Poker Flat Research Range to collect data from the heart of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

“We’re investigating what’s called space weather,” Cornell University’s Steven Powell, principal investigator for the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfven resonator mission, said in a press release Cornell issued Feb. 20.

The rocket, a 14-meter Terrier-Black Brant, was equipped with an instrument package that transmitted real-time data as it arced through the aurora 350 kilometers above Earth before landing about 320 kilometers downrange.

The instruments sampled electrons in the upper atmosphere that are affected by Alfven waves, a form of electromagnetic energy, according to the press release. “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,” the release said.