At 2:09 a.m. on March 3, 2014, aurora researchers launched a NASA sounding rocket over a display that rippled above northern Alaska. The rocket flew through the electric particles flowing down to create an aurora, allowing scientists to measure both the particles and the electric fields changed by the aurora.
From Poker Flat Research Range, the rocket reached the high point of its arc 200 miles above the village of Venetie. There, above the visible aurora, probes from the rocket extended like arms to measure electric and magnetic fields altered by the brilliant aurora.
“It was fantastic,” said lead scientist Marilia Samara of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “We had a specific box the aurora needed to fly through. The aurora was there when we launched, but it took four minutes to reach (the spot above the aurora she was shooting for). That was the one chance, and we flew right through. It was magical.”
“Like Goldilocks, we needed an arc that was just right, and at 2 a.m., there it was,” said Poker Flat Optical Science Manager Don Hampton, who from Poker Flat monitored Venetie aurora via an all-sky camera that team members installed in the village.
As the rocket flew, it gathered data and sent it back to the range almost simultaneously. First glances at the tremendous amount of information transmitted back are promising.
“So far, it’s looking like the data are really going to be good,” Hampton said.
Researchers had waited for the right conditions for a week during this window after having also exhausted a launch period from Jan. 25 through Feb. 9. The weeks of driving out to Poker Flat, 30 miles north of Fairbanks, and staying up most of the night paid off.
“It was definitely worth the wait,” said Samara.
Samara’s launch was a collaborative effort between co-investigators Robert Michell Keiichi Ogasawara of the Southwest Research Institute and the University of California Berkeley’s John Bonnell. Sounding rocket teams from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Va., and Poker Flat Research Range, which is operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, supported the launch attempts.
Poker Flat personnel located the spent second-stage motor from the 48-foot rocket on the same day it launched. The payload of the rocket landed northwest of Venetie and southwest of Arctic Village. An attempt to see the silver tube from a fixed-winged aircraft failed, but range staff members will look for it again after the snow melts.
Range Manager Kathe Rich said NASA has a clean range policy: There is a $1,200 reward for people who find previously undetected large pieces of rockets, such as motors and payload sections, and $500 for small pieces, such as doors and antennas. Since the initiation of the program, Poker Flat personnel have hauled every piece of reported debris back to the range for disposal.
There are no more scheduled rocket launches for Poker Flat Research Range in spring 2014.