NASA will launch two rockets into orbit from Poker Flat Research Range in the coming weeks with a mission of better understanding how energy is transferred and dispersed during aurora displays.
The “Ion-Neutral Coupling during Active Aurora” (INICAA) experiment will study what happens to solar wind energy after it reaches Earth’s magnetosphere, a magnetic shield that protects our planet from solar wind and radiation.
Solar wind is produced by a stream of charged particles that flows outward from the sun. The aurora is brighter and more active on Earth when the solar wind blows stronger, according to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. The experiment seeks to determine the altitude that solar wind energy is transferred and dispersed between the magnetosphere — located approximately 370,000 miles from Earth — and the ionosphere-thermosphere, which reaches about 50 to 400 miles above Earth’s surface.
When the aurora is visible, two sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments will launch to monitor wind and analyze atmospheric conditions at an altitude of 80 miles. Several ground-based instruments will be used to collect data, according to the Geophysical Institute.
The launch period for the experiment extends through April 7. The mission will be the second launch at the Poker Flat Research Range since January 2020.
“Once you’ve suddenly dumped a lot of energy into the atmosphere, that energy has to go somewhere,” said Stephen Kaeppler, assistant professor at Clemson University and the project’s principal investigator.
“Sometimes it can change the neutral part of the atmosphere. It can knock satellites out of space,” he explained. “And while a lot of satellites are high enough that it’s not much of an issue, it can be for lower-altitude satellites.”
In February, several dozen Starlink satellites within Elon Musk’s spaceflight company were lost during a geomagnetic storm. The storm caused the satellites to fall back to Earth and burn up during their descent.
Poker Flat Research Range, located 30 miles north of Fairbanks, is owned by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute and operates under contract with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which is part of the Goddard Space Flight Center.
In early March, NASA launched a sounding rocket into orbit from Poker Flat that studied the cause of pulsating northern lights, a rare type of aurora that flashes and vibrates.