Press Release

Rocket launch hopes to answer big aurora mystery

By SpaceRef Editor
May 4, 2021
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Four University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute space and plasma scientists hope to advance understanding of a key interaction between the solar wind and the planets when a four-stage NASA sounding rocket launches as early as May 7 and arcs high above the Atlantic Ocean.

The four researchers are part of a project led by Geophysical Institute space physics professor Peter Delamere. Called KiNET-X, the experiment seeks to understand how a large mass of plasma such as the solar wind interacts at the particle level with, for example, the plasma of Earth’s space environment.

It’s one of the fundamental mysteries of heliophysics.

The Black Brant XII is the largest of NASA’s sounding rockets. Sounding rockets take their name from the nautical term “to sound,” which means to take measurements. NASA has used sounding rockets since 1959.

The interaction between the solar wind and a planet’s magnetosphere appears as the aurora, whether here on Earth or on another planet that has a magnetic field and a substantial atmosphere. 

The KiNET-X experiment is designed to test the understanding of how auroral electrons are energized. The process is thought to occur at extremely small scales. 

Preparation has been underway since 2018, when NASA approved the project.

“I think that we’ve always recognized there’s something strange in space plasmas, and that is you have this huge, huge volume of space,” said Delamere, who is the principal investigator for the experiment.

Plasma is a gas in which atoms have been broken into free-floating negative electrons and positive ions. It accounts for more than 99% of the visible universe.

“In the case of the plasma in Earth’s magnetosphere, it’s many planetary diameters in scale,” Delamere said.

“But when you look at the aurora, you see these very thin curtains,” he said. “And why is the aurora so thin? Why do you get these very, very thin curtains that are dynamic?”

The answer might lie in how energy and momentum are transferred at the particle level when the plasmas of two magnetically connected regions of space — such as the solar wind and Earth’s plasma in the ionosphere —  interact.

The KiNET-X experiment, which builds on the work of previous NASA missions, will try to replicate that interaction but on an exceptionally small scale.

Researchers will launch a Black Brant XII rocket, the largest in the sounding rocket stable, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Center on Wallops Island, Virginia.

The rocket will rise over the Atlantic Ocean into the ionosphere and release two canisters of barium thermite. The canisters will then be detonated, one at about 249 miles high and one 90 seconds later on the downward trajectory at about 186 miles high, near Bermuda in the Atlantic Ocean.

The barium, once dispersed from the canisters, will turn into a plasma when ionized by the sunlight. There is no danger associated with the barium release, Delamere said.

The action will start when the barium plasma clouds, which will generate their own electromagnetic fields and waves, interact with the existing plasma of the ionosphere. The result could be an artificial aurora for residents of Bermuda, though creating one isn’t the purpose of the experiment.

Delamere will be at Wallops Island for the launch. Project co-investigator Don Hampton, a Geophysical Institute research associate professor, will be in Bermuda for ground observations. Geophysical Institute researchers Mark Conde, a space physics professor, and Antonius Otto, an emeritus professor of plasma physics, will monitor the experiment from Fairbanks.

The experiment also includes researchers and equipment from Dartmouth University, the University of New Hampshire, Clemson University, University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The launch window is May 7-16, 2021.

SpaceRef staff editor.