Rocket Launch at Poker Flat; Photo credit: NASA/Chris Perry
NASA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute teamed up with some scientists from Virginia Tech University to launch a sounding rocket over the weekend at the Poker Flat Research Range.
The Polar Night Nitric Oxide (PolarNOx) experiment saw a hang fire on the first night of their launch window, but the rocket was launched successfully on the second night.
The aurora borealis adds nitric oxide to the polar atmosphere, and levels increase in the winter months, but then dissipate in the summer months, with the increase of sunlight. Nitric oxide will destroy ozone under certain conditions. The sounding rocket was launched to collect data to better understand the build up of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide exists between 53 – 93 miles altitude, with its peak concentration between 62 – 68 miles altitude. The sounding rocket rose to an apex of 161 miles above the earth’s surface, before coming back down to our very frozen Interior.
The landing pad; Photo credit: Poker Flat Research Range
For those who were up in the early morning hours to witness the launch, the rocket was seen from all over the area. I had planned on being out there, but I was forced to make a quick run to the border instead. At least I saw a lot of caribou.
The fine folks out at Poker Flat Research Range have announced future launch windows. The first one opens on 26 January. Poker Flat does stream the launches of their sounding rockets online. One can receive launch updates by following the instructions above.
The aurora in Venetie, Alaska; Photo credit: PFRR
PFRR also has their nightly All-Sky Camera, which is very sensitive to the aurora. You can find their camera here:
It’s that time of year again. The aurora forecast from UAF’s Geophysical Institute is up and running again. A moderate aurora is being forecast for Thursday, with it being visible directly overhead for Fairbanks, weather permitting.
In Canada, Dawson City, Fort Nelson and Fort McMurray will find the northern lights directly overhead, assuming cloud cover doesn’t obscure viewing.
The aurora will be low on the horizon for Marquette, Michigan and Sundsvall, Sweden.
An equal, but opposite aurora will be taking place in the Southern Hemisphere, as well.
The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks puts out their geomagnetic forecast daily.
The Poker Flat Research Range had its 50th Anniversary party over the weekend, and Fairbanks residents showed up in droves to celebrate. I think it is safe to say that Fairbanks is quite proud of its far-north launch facility. I was amazed at how many people came out for the event.
Owned by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, Poker Flat is the world’s largest land-based rocket range. The 5132 acre site is located 30 miles from Fairbanks, just north of Chatanika, on the Steese Highway, where Poker Creek flows into the Chatanika River.
More than 300 major, high altitude rockets and 1800 meteorological rockets have been launched from Poker Flat to study the Earth’s atmosphere, and the interaction between that atmosphere and the space environment. The rockets launched are sounding rockets, which are designed to operate between the height that a weather ballon can reach, yet below satellites. Sounding rockets are relatively low cost, with a quick lead time, which is advantageous in the world of research.
NASA launches a sounding rocket at Poker Flat; Photo credit: PFRR
NASA, Wallops Flight Facility, the Department of Defense, and many universities world-wide, have launched rockets from Poker Flat.
A recovered payload from a March 2017 launch
One busy week at Poker Flat had four launches in 33 minutes during a night with high aurora activity. One mission saw two rockets launched to measure the turbulence in the upper atmosphere: was it two dimensional or three? Also measured were air density along the rocket’s parabola, which had an apex of 100 miles above northern Alaska. Also measured was the lowest reaches of where the aurora interacts with the upper atmosphere.
On the same night, two rockets from Clemson University launched. These rockets released a white vapor, trimethyl aluminum, so that researchers could visualize the turbulence 60 miles above the ground.
Not to be outdone, two nights later, a rocket launched for Utah State that released instruments to measure the voltages and currents in the aurora display over Kaktovik, Alaska.
Weather balloons ready to launch
I’m glad I arrived early, because I think turn out was greater than expected. After visiting the main offices, I walked down to where the shuttle busses were hauling people to the various sites. Poker Flat is fairly spread out, plus there was a cow moose and a calf wandering about, and officials seemed wary that someone could get stomped. Weather balloons were launched every 15 minutes or so, which I watched while waiting for a shuttle. Turns out there is an advantage to attending things like this solo. A University police officer offered rides to the upper facilities, and he had room for three. The first couple climbed in, and I seemed to be the only single paying attention, so I volunteered to climb in the back of the squad SUV.
Some NASA & PFRR “Rocketeers”
The facility is really quite impressive. I was able to talk to several NASA scientists, as well as some Poker Flat “rocketeers”. Everything was available to view, from the radar screens to the “catwalk” outside, and the green lidar beam, which is part laser and part radar, and is shot 50 miles into the sky. There wasn’t one person involved with the sounding rockets, that didn’t get excited talking about what they did, or what they had planned for next year. The representative from Wallops told me they were excited now to get down under to Australia to launch rockets next. It will be their winter soon, and they had some rockets designed that would open in the back with telescopes to get images of the southern sky.
A NASA launch as viewed by the Poker Flat Skycam; Image credit: PFRR
One thing about the aurora borealis that is not widely known, is that, due to the Earth’s magnetic field, what we see here in the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere sees the mirror image of. I have always found that fascinating.*
Early artwork of auroral display
The earliest written record of an auroral display was from 567 BC on a Babylonian clay tablet. The tablet describes a “red glow in the sky” lasting two hours. The red aurora was often thought of as an evil omen in medieval times. Nearly all northern native cultures associate the aurora with spirits of the dead.
Some statistics from PFRR:
First launch: March 1969
Heaviest rocket: Aries – 11 tons
Longest rocket: Black Brant XII – 85 feet
Heaviest payload: 2200 pounds
Highest altitude flown: 930 miles
Distance downrange: 1100 miles
Rocket acceleration: 17 Gs
Rocket speed: Mach 2
The view from a very bouncy squad SUV. The ride is not as comfortable as one might think.
The peak season for launches at Poker Flat is between January and March. Most often launches occur when the aurora is going, and the moon is down. Cleary Summit is a great place to watch and/or film a rocket launch. Poker Flat also streams launches live on its youtube channel.
The line for the shuttle bus, or the reason I took the police car; Image credit: PFRR
*See: Rockets Over Alaska: The Genesis of Poker Flat by Neil Davis
The Aurora has been phenomenal the past few days, with Sunday night producing an incredible light show over Interior Alaska. The bands of green, flowing light completely dominated the night sky for hours, making it difficult to even see the stars.
I received a special request recently to make a positive post, using art in some form, under the hashtag artober24. Art isn’t exactly what I do on this site, and I’m traveling at the moment, so I don’t have access to much, but I agreed to make an attempt. I’m not much for social media, so C to C will have to do.
The aurora flowed like a great river;
An inverted Yukon meandering across the sky.
Time lapsed. Banks eroded. The brilliant green
river changed its course.
Then drought hit, and the powerful flow was reduced
to a faint puddle, a dim shimmer.
The sky was quiet.
With an explosion, the aurora returned as a wall of
Imposing. Inspiring. Pulsing.
The lower layer of the wall of light was magenta.
The aurora’s lightning.
Thin lines of green light dropped down from
the glowing storm.
Like sheets of rain falling on the distant hills.
We’ve had a lot of cloud cover the past month or so, and I’ve seen some faint aurora glow recently, but last night the northern lights put on a phenomenal show. It was a wide path of phosphorescent, green light across the planet’s roof for close to an hour. I had been outside, enjoying the show for thirty minutes, before I thought, “Maybe I should grab a camera.” It’s never my first instinct.
In an interesting twist, according to NOAA, Sunday night will be offering a great chance to see some Northern Lights, assuming you are someplace south of Canada in the U.S. Northern Europe looks good, as does the middle of Russia.
Right now, I’ll take the daylight, and the Twin Cities can have some Aurora action. No sense rushing what is coming.
The Aurora Borealis put on quite a show Wednesday night. The wave of green and magenta light, flowed and pulsed among the starlight, filling much of our sky. It was the first I have seen the Northern Lights this season, and I was not prepared. I didn’t want to risk taking the dead Go-Pro off of the tripod, so these photos were snapped free-hand with the cell phone.
Eventually, the lights faded from overhead, and moved off to brighten the horizon for close to another hour. It felt good to welcome the Aurora back to our night skies.