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NASA and USU to Study Aurora Borealis by Launching Probe

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The Oriole IV suborbital sounding rocket launched Wednesday, blasting off over the cold skies of Alaska as part of NASA's efforts at studying the Aurora Borealis. Carrying research payloads built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) at the Utah State University, the launch is part of the agency's Auroral Spatial Structures Probe mission. And according to preliminary data received by the ground station, the launched probes are performing as they were meant to.

Professor Charles Swenson, ASSP mission principal investigator and Utah State Center for Space Engineering director, said the successful launch of the probe will let researchers as well as satellite operators gain a better understanding of the energy processes involved during an auroral activity and how they can affect satellites orbiting the planet.

He explained that solar winds create electric currents in the Earth's upper atmosphere where the Aurora Borealis occurs. These currents produce heat, expanding the thermosphere. This, in turn, increases the amount of drag on a satellite significantly.

Previous missions have already measured energy flow during an auroral event but the measurements recorded were only taken at certain points when a single probe passes over the aurora. The ASSP mission takes things to another level by not only launching a main instrument but also including six smaller probes, covering more area over the aurora.

The smaller probes are about six inches in diameter and around seven pounds in weight. Acting essentially like space buoys, they were launched from the rocket at different directions at high speed. Together with the main instrument, the probes create a measurement network that will let researchers have a bigger view over the aurora than what was previously possible.

As the ASSP will be measuring both temporal and spatial variations in energy within the upper atmosphere, this will allow researchers from NASA, the Utah State University and anywhere else in the world to gain better insight on when and where the planet's thermosphere will be heating and expanding because of the Joule heating process.

With this kind of information, satellite operators and planners will be able to come up with better forecasts and plans factoring in the thermosphere's condition in relation to satellite trajectories. This is very important most especially when solar storms as happening because electromagnetic energy will be interacting with the upper atmosphere in large amounts.

The SDL is one of 14 university-affiliated research centers in the United States. A part of the Utah State University Research Foundation, the laboratory is headquartered in North Logan but has operations in Houston, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Bedford, Huntsville and Washington, D.C.

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