Research rocket launches from Poker Flat, through pulsating aurora

Release Date: 
Monday, February 12, 2007

For Immediate Release

This morning, a NASA suborbital sounding rocket launched from Poker Flat Research Range into an aurora display over northern Alaska at 3:45 a.m. Alaska Standard Time, allowing researchers to gather more data about the power source behind pulsating auroras.

Marc Lessard of the physics department at the University of New Hampshire was the principle investigator for the experiment to investigate various aspects of pulsating aurora. The 662-pound experiment housed in the nose cone of a 65-foot Black Brant XII rocket arced above the atmosphere 408 miles above northern Alaska. Pulsating aurora is a subtle type of aurora that seems to blink on and off in large round patches.

Lessard’s experiment, called ROPA (Rocket Observations of Pulsating Aurora), was complex even by rocket-science standards. It had a main instrument cluster, known as a payload, and three sub-payloads, which separated early after the rocket cleared the upper atmosphere at an altitude of 140 miles. Two of the sub-payloads had their own rocket motors, propelling them away from the main payload where they obtained measurements of the pulsating aurora, which occurred near the latitude of Toolik Lake on Alaska’s North Slope. Dirk Lummerzheim of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute was on the ground at Toolik Lake. During the launch, he identified what looked like pulsating aurora in the all-sky camera at the research station there.

Researchers from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia were looking at data from the launch as soon as it was available, before 5 a.m. Alaska Standard Time. Scientists think pulsating auroras get their power from the Van Allen belts, radiation belts far from Earth. Lessard’s team also used the rocket to measure electrical current flow related to pulsating auroras and to produce visual images from within the pulsating aurora.

Two more rocket-based experiments are scheduled to launch from Poker Flat in the coming days and weeks—a four-rocket experiment lead by UAF’s John Craven and a one-rocket mission led by Jim Labelle of Dartmouth College.

Poker Flat Research Range is operated and maintained by the Geophysical Institute, under contract to

NASA. It is located 30 miles north of Fairbanks, off the Steese Highway.

Poker Flat Research Range: (907) 455-2110
Ned Rozell, Geophysical Institute: (907) 474-7468