NASA is about to launch two rockets into the Northern Lights, commonly known as the Aurora Borealis, as part of its Ion-neutral coupling during the Active Aurora mission (INCAA), the space agency said in a press release.
The Northern Lights are not only a tourist attraction but also an attraction for astronomers who study them with the aim of learning more about the universe in which we live. Thanks to Eugene Parker’s discovery of solar winds, we know that our Sun has a role to play in this natural light show that lights up the night sky.
How are auroras formed?
After decades of scientific research, we now know that the air we breathe on earth and the air in the upper layers of our atmosphere are not the same. While the one closer to the ground is rather neutral and balanced, as we get closer to space the nature of the air changes.
Propelled by the energy of the sun’s rays, the gas molecules lose the electrons in their orbits and take on positive charges in the absence of the former. The highly charged gases are now in a state called plasma and there is no real distinction in the atmosphere where the gaseous state ends and the plasma state begins. Instead, these two layers mix all the time, NASA said in its press release.
Auroras form when electrons from near-Earth space pass through our atmosphere and collide with neutral gases, igniting them. These collisions also cause friction and generate heat with these lights while shifting the boundaries between the gaseous and plasma layers.
The INCAA Mission
In an effort to understand how these lights influence this boundary layer and how much heat is generated in their wake, NASA researchers want to study the phenomenon up close and plan to launch two sounding rockets the next time the lights are on. views in the northern sky.
A sounding rocket is a smaller launch vehicle that travels into space for only a short time to take measurements and then falls back to Earth. NASA’s INCAA mission consists of two sounding rockets since each rocket carries a different payload.
The first will carry vapor tracers which it will leave in its wake as it travels to a maximum altitude of 186 miles. Vapor tracers are similar to chemicals used in fireworks and will create visible clouds that can be seen even on the ground and will help profile winds in the neutral atmosphere, the press release said.
The second, which will be launched shortly after the first, will only travel to a maximum altitude of 125 miles from where it will measure the temperature and density of the plasma around the aurora.
NASA scientists aren’t quite sure what kind of data they can expect from these flights, but these rockets are currently in position at Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska, ready to make the trip upwards as soon as the Northern Lights appear.