Blastoff! First rocket launched from Poker Flat in two years is a success

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The first rocket from Poker Flat Research Range in over two years blasted into the early morning sky over Fairbanks on Saturday in search of answers to the question what is the relationship between the pulsating northern lights and another atmospheric phenomenon involving electron microbursts?

NASA describes the pulsating aurora borealis as similar to traditional curtain-like aurora, which happens when electrons enter the atmosphere and collide with atoms and molecules, causing a colorful glow as gasses release. A pulsating aurora looks patchy and occurs within minutes or sometimes hours after a typical curtain-like aurora.

The microbursts being studied are described by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute as “higher-energy electrons from the Earth’s magnetosphere driven toward Earth in bursts that last about one-tenth of a second.”

These bursts are similar to the flickering of the pulsating aurora but faster.

“Pulsating aurora and microbursts seem to happen at similar times, even though they’re different energy ranges,” reads a statement on the NASA website from space scientist Alexa Halford. “So, the big question is, are they the same events? Are they being driven by the same processes in the magnetosphere?”

The Poker Flat Research Range northeast of Fairbanks hosted the launch of a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket at 2:27 a.m. after researchers detected pulsating aurora over Venetie, according to a news release. Cameras had reportedly been staged in Venetie and Fort Yukon and residents recruited to collect data and images of the aurora.

Halford led the experiment from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with hopes to learn when and if high-energy microbursts and low-energy auroral electrons coincide.

It will improve scientists’ understanding of the relationship between space weather and atmospheric chemistry, according to the Geophysical Institute.

The rocket had successfully sent atmospheric data from all instruments. The Geophysical Institute announced the launch at 12:52 p.m. Saturday. It was the first launch at the site at Mile 30 Steese Highway since January 2020. The Poker Flat Research Range was sidelined by Covid-19, according to the director.

The rocket is described on the NASA website as a two-stage sounding rocket capable of taking an 800-pound payload 350 kilometers or a 300-pound payload 550 kilometers.

The Loss through Auroral Microburst Pulsations, or LAMP, experiment required a variety of instruments to be added to the rocket payload to examine electrons, plasma, magnetic fields and visual components within the lights.

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Researchers had waited to launch for more than a week.

“The launch had been repeatedly postponed since the Feb. 24 opening of the launch window because scientists needed the right combination of active aurora and good weather at a camera site in Venetie,” the Geophysical Institute news release reads.

Weather and aurora activity improved in recent days and when the researchers detected pulsating aurora over Venetie early Saturday, they mobilized.

The small rocket flew above the pulsating aurora, measuring the low-energy particles as well as medium- and high-energy electrons.

NASA staged a riometer, used to quantify electromagnetic-wave ionospheric absorption in the atmosphere, on the ground to provide an independent measure of high-energy electrons and to confirm rocket team measurements. After a few minutes of measurements, the rocket fell back to earth.

“This was an amazing launch,” Halford said in a statement provided by the Geophysical Institute. “We couldn’t have asked for anything better, and it was all due to the science team, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility and Poker Flat Research Range people as well as the support and help from the communities of Venetie and Fort Yukon. Without them, we wouldn’t have had everything we needed, especially the ground stations.”

“The rocket flew as true as one could hope for and into an aurora event that was better than anything we could have asked for,” Halford said. “We are still all riding high and can’t wait to start working on the data.”

Poker Flat Director Kathe Rich said a crew located the payload northwest of Arctic Village from a helicopter.

Since the data for the experiment was transmitted, the equipment is no longer needed, she said.

“We do go up and recover them, we try to do an annual recovery in August unless there is a reason to recover immediately,” Rich said. “We need to clean up our mess.”

She said they will search for the rocket motor next. The search area is a broad swath of land north of Fairbanks, west of the border with Canada.

Anyone who finds the rocket motor first can provide photos or a latitude and longitude for a reward. Poker Flat pays $1,200 for large pieces and $600 for smaller pieces, Rich said.



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