Mar 09, 2017 I Brett Tingley

NASA Launches Rockets to Study Mysteries of Northern Lights

The Earth’s magnetosphere has been receiving a high level of scientific scrutiny lately. Several cracks and weak spots have appeared in our planet’s protective magnetic field, letting in higher concentrations of cosmic and solar radiation. Luckily, the sun appears to be entering a phase of lowered solar activity, which will lower the amount of solar radiation bombarding the Earth but will, unfortunately, also mean the aurora borealis and aurora australis won't be as visible or active as they have previously been observed to be.

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Auroras are produced when solar winds disturb the Earth's magnetosphere.

There are still many unanswered questions and gaps in our knowledge concerning the relationship between the Earth’s magnetosphere and the upper atmosphere, where the auroras occur. The auroras produce nitric oxide, and scientists aren't sure how much auroras contribute to this ozone-depleting gas. There are also other phenomena such as 'jets' of neutral particles which appear in auroras which have no known explanation. In order to study these mysteries, NASA is conducting a series of experiments aboard sounding rockets, three of which were launched this week. Sounding rockets are smaller rockets designed for sub-orbital flight and are typically used for scientific experiments. The sounding rockets were launched from NASA’s Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks, Alaska.

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Two of the rockets were launched almost simultaneously.

Kristina Lynch, the principal investigator of one of the missions, says the auroras offer the perfect opportunity for studying the mysteries of the Earth’s magnetic field and the aurora borealis:

The visible light produced in the atmosphere as aurora is the last step of a chain of processes connecting the solar wind to the atmosphere. We are seeking to understand what structure in these visible signatures can tell us about the electrodynamics of processes higher up.

These launches took place just weeks after a few other conspicuous events nearby in the Arctic. Last month, the secretive and controversial High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) resumed conducting experiments. It has been suspected that HAARP might actually be some type of ionospheric radio surveillance program designed to spy on our rival superpowers on the other side of the world.

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The HAARP facility is only a few hundred miles to the south of where the rockets were launched.

Weeks before HAARP fired back up, high levels of nuclear radiation were detected across many regions of the Arctic. Could all of these be related? Is there a new Cold War afoot in the icy reaches of our North Pole? It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, given the recent geopolitical climate between Russia and the West. Let’s just hope that whatever is going on, this war continues to remain cold.

Brett Tingley
Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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