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.
It’s early August and people were starting to think “white stuff”. I had three jobs lined up, everyone desperate for me to start, yet not one of them was ready for me. What to do with the day off?
As luck would have it, Poker Flat Research Range had one of their summer walking tours that day, so I drove the 25 miles out to Chatanika.
“The Blockhouse” or bunker
PFRR is the world’s largest land-based rocket range. The facility is owned by the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. They launch sounding rockets from the range, in order to study the Earth’s atmosphere and the interaction between the atmosphere and the space environment.
Space junk returned to Earth
Study ranges from the Earth’s magnetic field to the aurora. NASA is prominent at the range, but researchers come from all over the world. All of the rockets launched from PFRR return to the Earth’s surface, and the range collects the spent payloads every summer. There is a reward paid out to anyone finding material from Poker Flat.
Poker Flat Launch Pad
The building above is open on the far end. The interior of the building, and the actual launch pad, was off limits to photography. It’s a NASA rule that doesn’t thrill UAF apparently, but we all honored the rule. The sounding rocket is brought in on what is basically an open trailer. The rocket is loaded onto the launcher, which looks like a giant erector set with a large pivot. The building itself is sitting on a pair of tracks. When ready to begin countdown, the building is pulled back away from the pad, and the rocket is spun vertical with the large erector set pivot.
The control center was surprisingly manual in operation. Scientists are extremely fussy about launch conditions, and they often pull the plug with one second to go. An automatic system does not give the flexibility that is needed, so there is still a “launch button”.
That doesn’t mean there is a shortage of cable, wires, or connectors.
The touring rocket
PFRR does a good job with the tour. It’s pretty relaxed, and a nice way to spend some time outdoors, for the most part, in an Interior Alaska summer. After the tour, don’t forget to stop by the Chatanika Lodge, which is just down the highway.
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