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Extreme Science: Launching Sounding Rockets from The Arctic

Extreme Science: Launching Sounding Rockets from The Arctic

This winter, our scientists and engineers traveled to the
world’s northernmost civilian town to launch rockets equipped with cutting-edge
scientific instruments.

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This is the beginning of a 14-month-long campaign to study a particular
region of Earth’s magnetic field — which means launching near the poles. What’s
it like to launch a science rocket in these extreme conditions?

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Our planet is protected by a natural magnetic field that
deflects most of the particles that flow out from the Sun — the solar wind —
away from our atmosphere. But near the north and south poles, two oddities in
Earth’s magnetic field funnel these solar particles directly into our
atmosphere. These regions are the polar cusps, and it turns out they’re the
ideal spot for studying how our atmosphere interacts with space.

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The scientists of the Grand Challenge Initiative — Cusp are
using sounding rockets to do their research. Sounding
rockets are suborbital rockets that launch to a few hundred miles in altitude,
spending a few minutes in space before falling back to Earth. That means
sounding rockets can carry sensitive instruments above our atmosphere to study
the Sun, other stars and even distant galaxies.

They also fly directly through some of the most interesting
regions of Earth’s atmosphere, and that’s what scientists are taking advantage
of for their Grand Challenge experiments.

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One of the ideal rocket ranges for cusp science is in
Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, off the coast of Norway and within the Arctic circle.
Because of its far northward position, each morning Svalbard passes directly
under Earth’s magnetic cusp.

But launching in this extreme, remote environment puts another
set of challenges on the mission teams. These launches need to happen during
the winter, when Svalbard experiences 24/7 darkness because of Earth’s axial
tilt. The launch teams can go months without seeing the Sun.

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Like for all rocket launches, the science teams have to wait
for the right weather conditions to launch. Because they’re studying upper
atmospheric processes, some of these teams also have to wait for other science
conditions, like active auroras. Auroras are created when charged particles
collide with Earth’s atmosphere — often triggered by solar storms or changes in
the solar wind — and they’re related to many of the upper-atmospheric processes
that scientists want to study near the magnetic cusp.

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But even before launch, the extreme conditions make
launching rockets a tricky business — it’s so cold that the rockets must be
encased in styrofoam before launch to protect them from the low temperatures
and potential precipitation.

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When all is finally ready, an alarm sounds throughout the
town of Ny-Ålesund to alert residents to the impending launch. And then it’s
up, up and away! This photo shows the launch of the twin VISIONS-2 sounding rockets on Dec.
7, 2018 from Ny-Ålesund.

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These rockets are designed to break up during flight — so
after launch comes clean-up. The launch teams track where debris lands so that
they can retrieve the pieces later.

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The
next launch of the Grand Challenge Initiative is AZURE, launching from Andøya
Space Center in Norway in March 2019.

 For even more about what it’s like to launch science rockets
in extreme conditions, check out one scientist’s notes from the field: https://go.nasa.gov/2QzyjR4

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For updates on the Grand Challenge Initiative and other
sounding rocket flights, visit nasa.gov/soundingrockets or follow along with NASA Wallops and NASA
heliophysics on Twitter and Facebook.

@NASA_Wallops | NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility | @NASASun | NASA Sun Science

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