Researchers Launch Rocket to Study Northern Lights

A rocket was successfully launched from Poker Flat north of Fairbanks over the weekend. Saturday night’s flight was part of a multi-university project aimed at understanding  the effect of the northern lights on global positioning system and other radio signals. Principle investigator Steve Powell of Cornell University says satellite data indicated an intense stream, of charged particles from the sun heading toward the earth, and the aurora did not disappoint.

Powell says the tricky part was deciding when to launch. He says success hinged on going up while the aurora was in the rocket’s trajectory above the Yukon Flats.

The timing worked out.  The 46 foot high 2 stage rocket flew an arcing path through the aurora, 200 miles above the earth’s surface during its 10 minute flight. Powell says antennas and sensors deployed, took measurements, and radioed their signals to receivers on the ground. He says the data quality is excellent and will be analyzed to improve G.P.S. signals.

Powell says the models will be used to develop G.P.S. programs that compensate for errant signals, or warn users about them.  He says it’s important as people increasingly rely on G.P.S., and an 11 year solar cycle peaks.  The project was the only scheduled launch from Poker Flat this season.  Poker Flat is operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks for NASA.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.