Auroras Shed Light On Space Secrets
A sounding rocket carrying Aerospace instruments launches into the northern lights. (Photo courtesy NASA/Goddard/Chris Perry.)
The auroras are more than just spectacularly pretty. They are a window into space’s mysteries, a window that a joint team from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and The Aerospace Corporation recently took advantage of, using a suborbital rocket mission named VISIONS.
Aerospace and NASA employees traveled to Poker Flat, Alaska, in early February to wait for the northern lights to begin their enigmatic dance across the night sky. They had a two-week window in which to wait for the perfect conditions before launching the sounding rocket into the red and green depths of the aurora borealis. While the lights appear fairly often, the team wanted a strong magnetic storm to maximize the data collection. They finally got their chance Feb. 5.
The VISIONS project (VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm) began as a proposal between the two organizations more than three years ago.
When the Goddard team set out to measure the solar winds present within the aurora, they reached out to The Aerospace Corporation for the company’s capability to measure charged particles, said Dr. James Clemmons, principal director, Space Science Applications Laboratory.
“Study is an important concern for any spacefaring nation. NASA is interested in learning about these, and so is Aerospace,” said Clemmons, who was one of the handful of scientists from the Aerospace team to travel to Alaska. “We were looking at the drivers — the cause and effect — and NASA Goddard was looking at the effect only.”