Here’s What It Looked Like When NASA Shot a Rocket into The Northern Lights
It was technically challenging. But also really pretty.
At 3:41 AM this morning, on a cold, bright night in Alaska, NASA scientists gazed up at the northern lights and then shot a rocket right up in there.
It's far from the first time a rocket has been fired into the aurora, but this probe had a special mission: to collect important data that will hopefully help us understand how the northern lights heat the Earth's upper atmosphere.
It was also a technically challenging mission that required perfectly-synchronized precision. The Oriole IV sounding rocket—a type of rocket designed only to carry scientific instruments—was strapped with six payloads carrying equipment from Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory. Once the rocket was in the midst of the northern lights, the six probes deployed in order to capture a wide spectrum of data from inside the aurora for the first time ever.
"They are ejected from the rocket in different directions at high velocity, essentially acting as space buoys, to create a network of measurements that will allow us to see the structure of the aurora over a much wider area than was possible before," Tim Neilsen, the SDL's manager for the mission, said in a press release.
After taking a first glance at the data, the mission scientists believe it was a success that, with further analysis, will give deeper insight into the aurora's interaction with the Earth's atmosphere and geomagnetic activity.
"This is likely the most complicated mission the sounding rocket program has ever undertaken and it was not easy by any stretch," said John Hickman, operations manager of NASA's sounding rocket program. He said all of the six probes deployed perfectly while the rocket maintained its proper altitude.
"Quite an amazing feat," he said.
And a pretty one to watch, too.