Poker Flat rocket gathers data on northern lights

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A rocket launch late Monday night from the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks has thrilled scientists by gathering huge amounts of data linked to the aurora, the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute said.

At 10:50 p.m., the two-stage Terrier-Black Brant IX rocket flew 239 miles into a brilliant band of northern lights in the upper atmosphere. There, its 700-pound payload of instruments took the measure of certain types of waves and disturbances within the aurora, the institute said.

The data will be analyzed over the coming year to test theories about a charged gas called plasma that probably apply universally, scientists have said.

The waves cycle at millions of times per second, so special high-bandwidth instruments were needed to measure them, said James LaBelle of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the mission's principal investigator.

Those instruments ''allowed us to receive data from the rocket at a rate higher than any previous aurora sounding rocket to date,'' LaBelle said.

The launch had to wait six nights for optimal weather and auroral conditions. The next launch window at Poker Flat will extend from Feb. 18 through March 8.

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