Poker Flat rocket launches to study aurora

Posted: Thursday, January 03, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Cornell University professor Paul Kintner Jr. is crossing his fingers for some ''big whopping aurora.''

''We need lots of current. We need a bright active auroral display, lots of things waving around in the sky with the red borders on the bottom,'' he said, ''the kind of aurora that people would see and their mouths would drop open and say aaahhh!''

That's what's necessary for Kintner to launch his rocket, the first launch scheduled at Poker Flat Research Range in two years.

He needs just a few other things to make the launch go off without a hitch.

The perfect aurora needs to be in the northern sky, since that's the direction his Black Brant XII rocket needs to travel.

The moon cannot be too bright.

And if it's not too much to ask, some clear and cold weather would be nice.

''What concerns me right now is the good weather you are all having, which means it is going to be cloudy,'' Kintner said.

Kintner's launch window opens Saturday and will be open for about 14 to 16 days. If all the needed conditions click into place during that time, Kintner will fire his rocket into the aurora. It will eventually crash into the Arctic Ocean after relaying data back to Earth.

Payload instruments on the rocket will gather data Kintner will use in his study of the oxygen emitted by the aurora. He said scientists believe that the oxygen from the aurora becomes energized and forms the radiation belts that circle the Earth near the equator.

Kintner's experiment aims to determine how the oxygen is expelled from the aurora, he said, which is thought to be the beginning of the oxygen's acceleration process.

''This particular measurement is trying to understand how the ionosphere is expelled outward in space to form the radiation belts,'' Kintner said.

Those radiation belts limit the lifetime of orbiting satellites and can damage them instantly when static electricity builds up and arcs, he said. The belts, though usually high above the Earth, could at times pose a danger to astronauts working outside a spacecraft or space station, Kintner added.

Kintner's rocket payload is sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Twelve other launches are scheduled between now and March. Of those, six will be part of other experiments studying the aurora.

Later this month, four rockets designed to measure wind in the upper atmosphere will be launched in rapid succession. Three of the rockets will release colorful trails that will be visible throughout the Interior. The fourth rocket will carry instruments to measure the trails.

In March, students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a university in Japan will collaborate on a launch. The primary goal of that project is to allow students a chance to work on design, construction and launch of sounding rocket payloads, according to UAF's Geophysical Institute.

In addition to the scheduled launches, Poker Flat is being considered as a host for the launch of two guided rockets in April, part of a federal experiment studying rocket dispersion patterns.

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