Successful Launch Decorates Sky with Brilliant Colors

Release Date: 
Thursday, February 21, 2002

After waiting more than six weeks for the optimal weather and auroral conditions to occur, scientists successfully launched four rockets within six minutes from Poker Flat Research Range early Thursday morning.

The first rocket, a single-stage Black Brant, carried about 800 pounds of instruments through the aurora to measure light and small-scale weather in the upper atmosphere. The instrumented payload launched at 12:55 a.m., while the temperature at Poker Flat was 25 below zero. The payload flew 191 kilometers high, separated from the rocket, lowered to the ground by parachute and landed south of the Brooks Range where Poker Flat personnel will fly to retrieve it Friday, weather permitting.

As part of the same experiment, three two-stage Taurus Orion rockets launched at 12:57 a.m., 12:59 a.m. and 1:01 a.m., each releasing brilliant blue-green chemical trails to trace wind in the upper atmosphere. The trails could be seen for 20 minutes from locations in interior Alaska, as far north of the Brooks Range and as far east as the Canadian border.

The trimethyl aluminum released by the three rockets is a benign chemical that breaks down into water, carbon dioxide and aluminum oxide, and was used for the experiment since it glows when it contacts oxygen. When released early Thursday, the chemical trails were visible first as comets, then as corkscrews of light as the releases traced upper atmospheric winds. Another effect of the chemical launch was the creation of a brilliant glob of auroral light caused by the trimethyl aluminum referred to as “artificial aurora.”

With cooperation from the clear early morning sky, the luminous trails were successfully photographed at ground stations at the range and at Coldfoot and Fort Yukon to help scientists determine the speed and direction of wind in the upper atmosphere. Similar in concept to the jet stream, the wind in the upper atmosphere is created by electrical currents in the aurora.

Wind created by the aurora can affect the orbits of satellites and interfere with long range radio transmissions. Information gained from the rocket flights will help scientists design, track and operate satellites and other manmade space systems more effectively.

Clemson University Professor Miguel Larsen, from South Carolina, is the principal investigator for the chemical release rockets. Andrew Christensen, special envoy for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the principal investigator for the instrumented payload.

Five more rockets are scheduled to launch from Poker Flat in March. The research range is located about 30 miles northeast of Fairbanks, and is owned and operated by the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks under contract to NASA.

For more information, contact Geophysical Institute Public Relations Specialist Vicki Daniels at (907) 474-5823, or via email at

Principal Investigator Miguel Larsen will be available for comment Friday from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. via phone at (864) 656-5309.