On March 3, NASA launched a rocket straight into an aurora over Alaska to study how its curls and swirls form.
Auroras are beautiful sights to behold, and NASA is seeking to gain a better understanding of how they develop the specific shapes they do. To that end, a sounding rocket was launched into an aurora in the early morning of March 3 over Venetie, Alaska.
Sounding rockets, also known as research rockets, carry scientific instruments into space for 5-20 minutes before returning to Earth and serve as a low-cost alternative to satellites. This one was part of the GREECE mission – the Ground-to-Rocket Electrodynamics-Electron Correlative Experiment – which seeks to understand what sets the aurora’s shape curling and swirling.
“The conditions were optimal,” said Marilia Samara, principal investigator for the mission at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “We can’t wait to dig into the data.”
Auroras appear in the high latitude regions of the world – the Arctic and Antarctic – and are caused by charged particles colliding with atoms high up in the atmosphere. Ions flowing from the Sun become trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, travel toward the poles, and collide with oxygen or nitrogen atoms in the air; the resulting light is the energy released by these collisions. Some auroras illuminate the night sky with enough brightness for observers to be able to read by the light they shed.