Astronomers recently sent a 46-foot rocket sailing through the shimmering green band of energy known as aurora borealis, or the northern lights.
The NASA-funded mission launched on the frigid night of Feb. 18 from the Poker Flat Research Range, 30 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska. The rocket, called the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator (MICA), arced 200 miles upward and plunged directly into the lights.
Auroras occur when charged particles emanating from the sun hit Earth’s upper atmosphere, producing light. Instruments aboard MICA probed the electric and magnetic fields that arise from this collision, collecting data for 10 minutes before falling back to Earth.
The recorded information will help researchers understand how the charged particles, collectively known as the solar wind, affect Earth. Such data is important because the sun is currently entering a period of increased activity and electromagnetic storms can affect satellites orbiting the Earth.
MICA also studied a special form of electromagnetic energy known as Alfvén waves. These waves travel through hot ionized gas called plasma, and act similar to sound waves.
When solar wind hits the Earth’s ionosphere, it strikes a structure known as the Alfvén resonator, a narrow channel in the atmosphere several hundred miles tall but only six miles wide. Much like a plucked guitar string resonating at a certain frequency, this structure reverberates in response to the sun’s energy. Researchers think this action may produce auroras.
MICA is not the first rocket launched into the northern lights. Back in 2009, two rockets flew from Poker Flats through an aurora, collecting data from the top and bottom edges of the flickering green ribbon.
Images: 1) Terry E. Zaperach, NASA. 2) Donald Hampton
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Tuesday, February 21, 2012
NASA Launches Rocket Into Northern Lights | Wired Science