Tag Archives: Fairbanks

Stairway to…

Camera: Leica M3; Film: Kodak 35mm, T-Max 100


Poker Flat Research Range


The entrance to Poker Flat

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 Cutest Dragon”

World Ice Art Championships 2019:

This carving won first place in the two-person carving competition. The artists, Junichi Nakamura & Hiroaki Kimura are from Japan.

I must admit, it is the cutest dragon I’ve seen in Fairbanks.


The Dragon at night


Gentle Alaskan Giants

More from The Museum of the North


A pair of whale skulls

The smaller of the two skulls came from a gray whale. Gray whales typically show up in Alaskan waters during April. May and June are the best months for sightings. After that, these whales make their way up to summer in the cool waters of the Bering & Chukchi Seas. Their migration in the Pacific Ocean can be as much as 7000 miles one way. They start their journey south again in mid-October, reaching Baja California in December and January.


A breaching gray whale

Male gray whales reach 45 feet in length on average, with females growing a bit larger. Weight runs between 30-40 tons for both sexes. Unlike humpbacks, they have no dorsal fin. Lifespan is estimated to be 50-60 years. Of the three original populations of gray whales, the eastern Pacific stock that spends part of the year in Alaska waters, is the largest. The northern Atlantic population is extinct, and the Korean, or western Pacific population is now severely depleted.


Bowhead whale skull

The larger of the two skulls is from a bowhead whale. The bowhead is Alaska’s official state marine mammal. Unlike the gray whale and humpbacks, bowheads spend their entire year in arctic and sub-arctic waters. Their great arching head can break through sea ice to create breathing holes, and their blubber can reach 20 inches thick, accounting for half their weight. Bowheads are extremely vocal mammals, which in addition to communication, seems to aid in navigating the ice filled waters of the Arctic. The bowhead may have the longest lifespan of any mammal on the planet at an estimated 200 years.


Bowhead whale

Bowheads run 45-59 feet in length, and weigh 75-100 tonnes as adults. Their population is still listed as threatened, with a world-wide population of 8000-10000. The Alaska population is doing the best, with the population tripling in the past 30 years.


Humpback whale tail

In all, Alaska has at least 14 species of whales that spend some, if not all of the year in its waters. The museum expects to put a full humpback skeleton on display soon. This particular humpback whale washed ashore near Anchorage, where a team from the museum collected the skeleton, then transported it over land to Fairbanks. The skull alone, weighed 807 pounds.


Pachyrhinosaurus skull

Alaska once had dinosaurs. A pachyrhinosaurus skull like this one, was found along the Colville River on Alaska’s North Slope. The pachyrhinosaurus roamed northwestern North America between 71 million and 67 million years ago. Distantly related to the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus was a large, if unaggressive beast. Reaching 20 feet in length and around 4 tons in weight. They lived in herds, were herbivores, and seemed to migrate long distances.


A rendering of a pachyrhinosaurus

In Greek, pachyrhinosaurus means “reptile with a thick nose”. Like the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus had a thick, boney neck frill. Unlike the triceratops, the pachyrhinosaurus did not grow horns, but had a large knobby growth protrude from it’s nose.

Thanks to the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the pachyrhinosaurus rendering; and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game for the whale photos. And a special thanks to Ancient Greece for the name pachyrhinosaurus, which in a perverse way, I enjoyed typing over and over, because the word seemed to freak out my computer.


Ben Eielson’s Curtiss JN-4D


Ben Eielson’s “Jenny 1”, on skis, in 1968

Ben Eielson was a school teacher in 1923. He convinced a group of Fairbanks businessmen to invest in a war surplus Curtiss JN-4D biplane for $2400. Within a week, Eielson had turned a profit giving demonstration flights over Fairbanks.


The Jenny today at Fairbanks International Airport

People were quickly convinced at how the airplane could benefit Alaskans. Eielson, his investors, and the Curtiss Jenny started the Farthest North Airplane Co. and air transport within the state was underway.

The Jenny was pretty beat up after only a few years of flying in Alaska and was retired. Somehow the University of Alaska received the biplane as a donation around 1945, but no one knows who donated it. It is now part of the Museum of the North’s collection.

The plane has hung from the ceiling of Fairbanks International since 1981, but for years it had the wrong wings. The University received the plane without wings, so wings from a Swallow were installed, which bugged the airplane savvy locals. A restoration was undertaken, complete with correct wings, in 2007. The Curtiss is only missing two engine pieces to fly again: a water pump and magneto. Parts which are almost impossible to find today. The restored aircraft returned to the airport in 2013; 90 years after Ben Eielson first flew it above Fairbanks.


“Jenny 1”

World Ice Art Championships 2019:


The Jenny 1

Another multi-block contestant. This carving is modeled after Ben Eielson’s Curtiss JN-4D, which now hangs from the ceiling of the Fairbanks International Airport.


Jenny 1 Night Flight


Museum of the North

Located on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks, is the Museum of the North. The museum takes on the daunting task of introducing visitors to the vastness and diversity, that is Alaska.


Otto the Brown Bear

“Otto” has been greeting visitors to the museum since its inception. He stands, all 8’9″ of him, at the opening of the Gallery of Alaska. The gallery is divided into the five main geographic regions of the state: Southeast, Southcentral, Interior, Western Arctic Coast and Southwest. Originally from Herendeen Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, Otto weighed 1250 pounds at the time of his death.


Woolly Mammoth skull, with mastodon and mammoth jaw

Locked in the permafrost, mammoth skulls have often been found by miners, as they worked the frozen ground for gold. Thirty-one, known, species of Pleistocene mammals roamed Alaska’s ancient grasslands with the mammoth.


Southeast Alaska totem pole


Petroglyph, Alaskan style


“Blue Babe”

Blue Babe is probably my favorite exhibit at the museum. An extinct, mummified, steppe bison, that was discovered in the permafrost by placer miners in 1979. The bison died around 36,000 years ago, killed by an American Lion. The claw and tooth marks can still be seen on the carcass. Shortly after the kill, just before winter, the bison was covered by silt. It was then entombed in cold earth and frozen until excavated.

There are only two other discoveries from the permafrost, that have been reconstructed and put on display like Blue Babe. One a juvenile mammoth and the other an adult mammoth, both are at the Zoological Museum in Leningrad.


Even today, Blue Babe has an American Lion looking over its shoulder


The skull of an American Lion, with one of a saber-toothed cat above and to the left

The American Lion, now extinct, was around 25% larger than the modern lion. They roamed North America in the Pleistocene epoch, 340,000 – 11,000 years ago.


The Antler Throne


Kayak and open boat

The museum is open every day in the summer, and slightly shorter hours M-Sat in the winter. Admission is $14 for adults.


Cannons from the Russian occupation. Included solely for The Curator