NASA set to launch two rockets into the Northern Lights

It can happen any day now.
Ameya Paleja
Northern Lights as seen in the Arctic CircleRadu Simion/iStock

NASA is set to launch two rockets into the Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, as part of its Ion-Neutral Coupling during Active Aurora (INCAA) mission, the space agency said in a press release

The Northern Lights are not only a tourist attraction but also one for astronomers who study them in an attempt to know more about the universe we live in. Thanks to Eugene Parker's discovery of the solar winds, we know that our Sun has a role to play in this natural light show that brightens up the night sky.

How do Auroras form?

Over decades of scientific research, we now know that the air we breathe on the land and the one in the upper layers of our atmosphere is not the same. While the one closer to the ground is rather neutral and balanced, as we get closer to outer space, the nature of the air changes. 

Powered by the energy from the Sun's rays, the molecules of the gas lose the electrons in their orbits and assume positive charges in the former's absence. 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. Rather these two layers, keep intermixing all the time, NASA said in its press release. 

Auroras form when electrons from near-Earth space cross over into our atmosphere and collide with the neutral gases, setting them alight. These collisions also result in friction and generate heat with these lights while also stirring up the boundaries between the gaseous and plasma layers. 

The INCAA Mission

With an aim to understand how these lights influence this boundary layer and how much heat is generated in their wake, researchers at NASA want to study the phenomenon up close and are planning to launch two sounding rockets, the next time the lights are seen in the northern sky. 

A sounding rocket is a smaller launch vehicle that goes to space for only a brief period of time to make measurements and then falls back to Earth. NASA's INCAA mission consists of two sounding rockets since each rocket carries a different payload. 

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The first will carry vapor tracers that it will leave in its trail as it travels to a peak 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 help in profiling the winds in the neutral atmosphere, the press release said. 

The second that will be fired shortly after the first one will only travel to a peak altitude of 125 miles from where it will measure the temperature and density of the plasma around the aurora. 

Scientists at NASA are not really sure what sort 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 upward journey as soon as the Northern Lights appear.