Poker Flat researchers hope to collect data on aurora

Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Scientists at the Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks will be watching the aurora borealis very closely Wednesday night in hopes of learning more about the phenomenon.

If conditions are right, a two-stage, 50-foot rocket loaded with 700 pounds of sensitive instruments will leap more than 60 miles into the upper atmosphere where it can pass through the northern lights.

The rocket is to collect data on a substance -- a charged-particle gas called plasma -- so universal that what scientists learn from the aurora mission can be applied to the study of stars, said physics and astronomy professor James LaBelle of Dartmouth College, the mission's lead investigator.

''Plasma is ubiquitous,'' LaBelle told the Anchorage Daily News. It is present in Earth's atmosphere just as it surrounds the farthest star.

LaBelle calls the aurora ''nature's television.'' The shimmering lights are created by roughly the same process that lights up our TV screens, he said.

''The northern lights are caused by ions fired into the atmosphere from above,'' LaBelle said. ''It's analogous to a television: Electrons behind the screen are fired at the screen, and it gives off light.''

What's new about the work LaBelle and other researchers are doing is their study of high-frequency waves, the turbulence in the plasma set off by those ions streaming from above just as a speedboat kicks up waves on a lake.

Instead of slowly advancing waves of water, however, the electron-disturbed plasma is ''sloshing millions of times per second,'' LaBelle said.

''The idea is to measure enough characteristics of the waves to match them up with physics theory,'' he said.

The aurora, LaBelle added, provides a convenient laboratory to test the theory.

The window for launching the high bandwidth auroral rocket lasts until Feb. 8.

The rocket's trajectory is fixed so it comes down to earth in an uninhabited part of Alaska, LaBelle said. Therefore, the trick is to wait for an energetic aurora to move into the path of the rocket, he said. Weather is another factor.

''The odds on any one night are less than 50 percent,'' LaBelle said. But he was hopeful the rocket would launch within the next seven days, he said Tuesday.

If no suitable conditions present themselves through Feb. 8, the next window for launching from Poker Flat is Feb. 18 through March 8. But a conflict could arise because two other auroral missions are scheduled for launching at the same time -- one involving four rockets launched one after another in succession, the other involving two rockets launched in tandem.

Poker Flat, 30 miles from Fairbanks, is owned by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and operated by UAF's Geophysical Institute under contract to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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