NASA set to launch 2 rockets into the northern lights

The rockets launch window for NASA’s Ion-Neutral Coupling during Active Aurora mission opened Wednesday (March 23) and runs through April 1; another window is open from April 3–7. The Wednesday launch was scrubbed due to bad weather. 

Led by Clemson University astronomer Stephen Kaeppler, scientists hope to send two rockets loaded with sensing tools into the active aurora borealis. They plan to measure the winds, temperatures and densities of the plasma within the aurora.

The US space agency is hoping to find out more about how natural light displays like auroras interact with the Earth’s atmosphere.

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The Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, occur when the Earth’s magnetosphere is getting bombarded by solar wind.

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The dancing lights of the aurora form when charged particles from space crash into molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere. These collisions boost the energy of the electrons in these atmospheric molecules, causing the electrons to orbit their nuclei at a higher energy state.

When the buzz wears off, the electrons drop back down to their original energy state, releasing a photon, or particle of light, as they do so. These photons create the shifting curtains of green, violet and red seen at polar latitudes. 

It’s the solar wind interacting with Earth’s magnetic field that creates the pretty green and blue displays. Scientists still don’t fully understand auroras and their impact on the atmosphere and this is something NASA hopes to figure out.

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We live in a neutral layer called the troposphere, which is full of the air we breathe. The further the layer from Earth, the more exposed it is to the impact of the Sun and its solar winds.

Kaeppler and his team are interested in the boundary between neutral gases in the atmosphere and plasma, or charged gas that becomes increasingly prevalent in the upper atmosphere. The molecular disturbance of the aurora perturbs the boundary layer between lower-atmosphere neutral gases and higher-atmosphere plasma. The disturbance leads to friction and, therefore, heat that researchers can measure. 

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NASA explained: “As residents of the troposphere, Earth’s lowest atmospheric layer, we’re used to air made of neutral particles.”

“The oxygen and nitrogen we breathe are magnetically balanced atoms and molecules with all their electrons accounted for.” “But hundreds of miles above us, our air begins to fundamentally change character.”

“Energized by the Sun’s unfiltered rays, electrons are pried from their atoms, which then take on a positive charge.”

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The first of the team’s rockets will release colorful vapors as it travels to a height of 186 miles (299 kilometers). These vapors, similar to the chemicals that make fireworks colorful, will drift in the atmosphere, allowing researchers to trace atmospheric wind. The next rocket is designed to reach a peak height of 125 miles (201 km) in order to carry instruments to measure temperature and density within the aurora. The rockets will fall back to Earth immediately after making their measurements. 

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The results should reveal the details of how the aurora alters that boundary layer between neutral gas and plasma, Kaeppler said in the statement. The boundary might get higher, drop lower, or fold and change shape. 

About the author

Naqvi Syed

Naqvi Syed is is a freelance journalist who has contributed to several publications, including Spacepsychiatrist. He tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. He works with Spacepsychiatrist from a long time.


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