On Wednesday, NASA launched a sounding rocket into the early morning skies above Fairbanks, as the wavering green glow of the aurora borealis danced over the Poker Flat Research Range near Mile 30 along Alaska’s Steese Highway.
The Wednesday launch was part of NASA’s DISSIPATION mission, managed out of Goddard Space Flight Center, which aims to capture data that will help scientists understand phenomena associated with auroras, including how high-altitude solar winds dissipate their energy, and how auroras contribute to heating the atmosphere, according to a NASA statement.
Part of the mission’s focus involves a region between 60 and 180 miles over the Earth and at latitudes above 65 degrees, known as the high-latitude ionosphere-thermosphere, where energy from charged solar wind particles is dissipated.
Researchers involved said that the launch, which occurred shortly after midnight, was timed perfectly with the peak of the aurora that morning, which lasted less than half an hour.
Aeronomist and planetary scientist Mehdi Benna, the experiment’s principal investigator, called Wednesday’s launch “exciting but nerve-racking.”
“The last four minutes of the countdown felt like hours as we waited for the last items on the launch checklist to be completed before the rocket could lift off,” Benna said in a statement.
The launch was a success, with the rocket’s sub-payload and the MoSAIC (Modular Spectrometer for Atmosphere and Ionosphere Characterization) instrument it carried parachuting to a safe position afterward, later to be retrieved with the aid of a transmitter beacon.
NASA later reported that all the instruments on board the rocket achieved their goal, and “captured data to understand how auroras heat the atmosphere and cause high-altitude winds.”
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