NASA has successfully launched first of its five sounding rockets on Jan. 27 from Alaska's Poker Flat Research Range.
The Black Brant IX sounding rocket carried the PolarNOx experiment is seeking to measure nitric oxide in the polar sky. The rocket was launched to an altitude of nearly 176 miles and yielded good data.
"The sounding rocket, science, and range team worked through previous payload and ground system issues to launch this payload, not to mention the extremely cold weather (as low as -50 degrees). The team did a great job to conduct a successful launch," said Phil Eberspeaker, Chief of the NASA Sounding Rocket Program Office.
This was endorsed by Scott Bailey, PolarNOx's principal investigator. He said the rocket's team did a good job as the spectrograph gave the flight data clearly and delivered useful data.
Bailey explained that the aurora or Northern Light generates nitric oxide. There is, however, no mechanism in the polar night for destroying the nitric oxide leading to its build up in larger concentrations.
Now PolarNOx will measure the altitude of peak abundance of nitric oxide.
"Attenuation of the starlight by nitric oxide is used to obtain a nitric oxide altitude profile," noted Bailey.
The investigation on nitric oxide build up is warranted because when it is transported to the stratosphere, there is the risk of ozone layer getting harmed. Such a change would alter stratospheric temperature and hit the circulation on the planet's surface.
Fast Data On Aurora
Sounding rockets are cost effective and flexible, unlike satellites that collect data for many years.
The primary mission of sounding rockets is to take scientific instruments to space and hold experiments in a shorter span of time. It can be an average 15 minutes enabled by the low speed of the vehicle. AIso, in many low regions satellites are unable to operate. In such areas, sounding rockets are ideal for doing the measurements.
The study of auroras is significant given that the phenomenon is a natural electrical process. They are caused by colliding forces of high-energy particles released by the sun clashing with Earth's magnetic field and upper atmosphere.
"The aurora is one of the fascinating topics in space physics today, and it still has a lot of important mysteries that we need to unlock," said Robert Pfaff, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
The beautiful aurora also heats up the upper atmosphere and sets it in motion. The rockets will be measuring them to understand this interaction, he added.
Two more sounding rocket launches are in the offing in the coming months. They will target solar wind, magnetosphere and top atmosphere of Earth.
The focus on magnetosphere will be significant as the processing of solar energy takes place there, whose release plays out the aurora.
The launch will be during the auroral activity.
The ISINGLASS launch will have two rockets flying to auroras of a different kind.