A NASA rocket was launched towards the aurora borealis on Wednesday night. The vehicle carried measurement instruments that will help scientists create more accurate space weather forecasts. However, starting the mission required a lot of precision.
On Wednesday night, when it was visible in the sky over Alaska northern lights, NASA launched a rocket from the Poker Flat test site. The moment of take-off was not chosen by accident – the vehicle had a set of measuring instruments collecting data on the phenomenon, without which the auroras would not exist. In recent days, high solar activity has contributed to the creation of a beautiful spectacle also in the Polish sky.
The aim of the mission, called Dissipation, is to investigate how charged particles of the solar wind dissipate energy in the high layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. They play an important role in shaping space weather. Its forecasting is important for satellite operators, navigation systems and energy networks – excessive activity of solar wind particles may disrupt their operation.
Mehdi Benna from the Robert H. Goddard Space Flight Center, principal investigator of the Dissipation project, said that the rocket launch was an exciting but nerve-wracking experience.
– The countdown had to be precisely planned to hit the peak of aurora activity, which lasted less than half an hour – he explained. – As we waited for the checklist to close, the last four minutes before takeoff seemed like hours.
Initial readings indicated that the onboard scientific instruments operated as intended. Now the science team of the Dissipation mission will process and analyze the collected data.
– This data will probably keep us all busy for the next few years. We will analyze this particular auroral event using analytical and numerical modeling, Benna said.
NASA, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Main photo source: NASA/Lee Wingfield