Poker Flat Rocket

The wrapped up payload goes out to the pad Wednesday afternoon at Poker Flat Research Range. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

A partnership with NASA will see a rocket light up the sky over Poker Flat Research Range next week.

“We’ve been working with the Sounding Rocket Program office with NASA for decades,” said Range Manager Kathe Rich.

NASA calls the endeavor the Polar Night Nitric Oxide or PolarNOx experiment. A sounding rocket will launch from Poker Flat during the site’s launch window, which runs from early Sunday through Wednesday.

“We think we’ll probably launch the first few days. We’re expecting this to be a very short window,” Rich said.

It’s a telescope mission, so principal investigator Scott Bailey will be flying a telescope, which is targeting a star, according to Rich.

“The purpose of this is to measure the concentration of nitric oxide in the mesosphere and the lower thermosphere,” Rich said. The mesosphere lies above the stratosphere, and the thermosphere above that, the latter starting about 56 miles above the Earth. 

Sounding rockets get their name from the term “to sound,” which means “to measure,” so they’re usually measuring something, according to Rich.

This rocket will be a NASA Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket, according to a NASA article on the launch. It is normally 17.26 inches in diameter and has a motor weighing around 2,789 pounds.

And unlike some other rockets, sounding rockets go up and come back down. So this rocket won’t go into orbit.

In this case, according to the NASA article, the rocket is using a star tracker to lock on to the star Gamma Pegasi, in the constellation Pegasus, and observe the loss of starlight energy from nitric oxide. From that they will be able to tell more about the gas, which develops during aurora activity and can harm the ozone in cases where it moves into the stratosphere, the second layer of the atmosphere.

NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program launches rockets all over the world, according to Rich, from Virginia, to Norway, to New Mexico. Poker Flat out in Chatanika happens to be one of their sites as well.

“Almost everything we launch goes through the NASA Sounding Rocket program office, which is based in Virginia. So, right now, the vast majority of our launches go through them. They are, however, pretty much all scientific in nature,” Rich said.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at