FAIRBANKS — A green glow that’s not the aurora borealis may be visible over much of the Interior one night this month as a rocket releases a glowing green chemical 60 miles above the Earth’s surface.

A group of scientists working out of the Poker Flat Research Range on the Steese Highway want to use a series of four rockets to measure atmospheric turbulence, the same unpredictable air currents that disrupt beverage service and cause fasten seat-belt signs to light up on commercial airliners.

The date of the launch isn’t certain because it depends on the weather. A launch window that opened Tuesday remains open until Jan. 29.

Two of the rockets will release trimethyl aluminum, a vapor that glows green when it reacts with oxygen. The green-glowing trail should be visible for as long as 30 minutes over much of the Interior between Fairbanks and the Brooks Range, according a news release from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Scientists want to better understand the movement of chemicals produced by the sun’s charged particles. These particles cause beautiful aurora displays when they interact with the earth’s magnetic field high in the atmosphere. But when the chemicals they produce are carried down to the ozone layer, these chemicals begin a process that depletes the protective ozone gas, something that’s not good for life on earth. 

The Poker Flat researchers want to better understand turbulence to know how the unpredictable currents carry the particles, said Rich Collins, the Geophysical Institute-based principal investigator for one of two missions.

“Turbulence is the smallest scale motion in the atmosphere” he said. “But it plays a role in the large-scale distribution of the atmosphere and this is poorly understood in models.”

Collins has never been a rocket scientist before. His past work analyzed the atmosphere using lasers. His rocket experiment, called the Mesosphere-Lower Thermosphere Turbulence Experiment, will collect data from the instruments on two 50-foot rockets launched within minutes of each other. The instruments will collect information on the density of the air and charged particles from the sun.

Interspersed between Collins’ rockets are the trimethyl aluminum rockets, an experiment led by Miguel Larsen, of Clemson University in South Carolina.

“We (Collins experiment) will look directly at measurements along the flight path of the rocket. He (Larsen) will look at how the (trimethyl aluminum) release moves across the sky,” he said. “They’re two complementary way to look at turbulence.”

The launch window opened Tuesday, but as of Tuesday evening the weather wasn’t right. The crew is waiting for a cold clear night with an inversion high in the atmosphere and a moderate aurora, weather that the short-term forecast doesn’t predict. Their launch window closes Jan. 29.

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.

Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMoutdoors.


Watch online:

It’s not a web cam of the launch site, but the green rocket trails should be visible on the Geophysical Institute’s aurora camera at: allsky.gi.alaska.edu.

Information about the launch is also available online at www.facebook.com/MTeXPFRR