BALTIMORE (WJZ) — NASA is preparing to launch up to five rockets into nature’s eeriest light show — the auroras.
When it comes to the natural electrical phenomenon, there’s still a lot to learn.
Auroras are like a bruise caused by colliding forces.
In this case, high energy particles released by the sun, striking Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere.
“The aurora is one of the most fascinating topics in space physics today, and it still has a lot of important mysteries that we need to unlock,” says Dr. Robert Pfaff, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Dr. Pfaff is hoping small sounding rockets will be the key. His mission to Alaska will launch two into an aurora.
“That energy comes down into the upper atmosphere and creates the beautiful aurora, but it also heats the upper atmosphere, sets it in motion, does a lot of physical processes that you can’t see with your eye that we’re going to be measuring with these rockets and trying to understand this interaction.”
Because people aboard the International Space Station travel through that same space, and heavy bombardment of highly charged particles can pose risks. Communication satellites are especially vulnerable to damage, as are electric power grids on Earth.
Unlike satellites, which can orbit and collect data for years, this mission is measured in minutes.
A pair of sounding rockets will launch together into an aurora, one going 100 miles up, the other 200 miles up, creating a fast vertical sampling of an aurora’s components.
“You can 10 minutes, but it’s a great 10 minutes,” Pfaff says.
The data will take months to analyze, long after the rocket falls back to Earth.
There will be a total of three separate rocket launches, each looking to unlock a different pieces of auroras.