Second NASA sounding rocket launches from Poker Flat
The second NASA sounding rocket of the season headed into Earth’s upper atmosphere from Poker Flat Research Range shortly after midnight Thursday, carrying a payload of science instruments.
It was the second launch in two nights at the rocket range owned by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute and operated under a contract with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which is part of the Goddard Space Flight Center. The range is located at Mile 30 Steese Highway.
In Thursday’s launch, a four-stage NASA sounding rocket carried instruments for the Beam-Plasma Interactions Experiment, which involved generation of very low frequency radio waves using a pulsed electron beam. The goal was to cause charged particles to rain down from space, along Earth’s magnetic field lines, and into the upper atmosphere.
Such a process might someday help remove charged particles from space after a nuclear explosion. The cleanup would make space safer for satellites.
The experiment’s principal investigator is Geoff Reeves, chief scientist for the Intelligence and Space Research Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“The mission was very successful. The launch was flawless,” Reeves said. “We could see from housekeeping data when the accelerator turned on and confirmed that the beam produced waves. This was huge for us. I was giving odds at about 50/50.”
“It was a pretty risky and innovative experiment,” he said.
Reeves needed a clear night with no aurora over Alaska to conduct the experiment. That’s because the aurora also produces radio waves, which would interfere with the experiment.
It’s also because the experiment might create something visual but faint. Reeves’ experiment could create something small that cameras at ground stations at Fort Yukon, Venetie and Toolik Field Station could capture.
A team at the Toolik location, on Alaska’s North Slope, was using a novel camera developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory to look for the artificial auroral spot that the beam might create. Having clear weather and no aurora at Toolik was essential.
At about midnight Reeves called for the launch, roughly an hour after the launch window opened.
“While the rocket team prepared, we watched both clouds and auroras come and go at Toolik,” Reeves said. “Meanwhile, strong winds at Poker kept introducing last-minute holds to launch weather balloons and assess launch safety.”
Reeves said the down-range optical imager, the plasma spectrometers and the high-frequency antenna all functioned as intended.
“It will take some analysis to determine what they saw, as expected,” Reeves said. “We’re anxious to analyze the data and see whatever we see.”
The rocket launched northward, aiming for an altitude of 280 miles and a projected landing about 60 miles north of Alaska’s Arctic Ocean coast.
The rocket carried two payloads: An electron accelerator to create the beam and another carrying radio wave receivers and instruments to measure plasma conditions. Plasma is a hot gas formed of electrically charged particles.
The launch of Reeves’ experiment came approximately 24 hours after Poker Flat’s first launch of the season.
A two-stage NASA sounding rocket flew skyward shortly after midnight Wednesday carrying instruments to gather data about the solar wind’s behavior. The experiment, named Dissipation, is aimed at learning how charged solar wind particles dissipate their energy in the high-latitude ionosphere-thermosphere. That region is about 62 to 186 miles above the Earth's surface and at latitudes above 65 degrees.