Auroral Mysteries Unveiled: NASA’s Sounding Rocket Rises Into Alaskan Skies

NASA Sounding Rocket Launches Into Alaskan Aurora

On November 8, 2023, NASA’s DISSIPATION mission was launched by a sounding rocket from Fairbanks, Alaska, with the goal of studying auroral impacts on the atmosphere. Credit: NASA/Lee Wingfield

NASA launched the DISSIPATION mission from Alaska to study auroral heating of the atmosphere.

A sounding rocket launched from Poker Flat Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska, on November 8, 2023, carrying NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s DISSIPATION mission. The rocket launched into aurora and successfully captured data to understand how auroras heat the atmosphere and cause high-altitude winds. 

The teams continue to support a second sounding rocket launch for BEAM-PIE, a mission for Los Alamos National Laboratory that will use an electron beam to create radio waves, measuring how atmospheric conditions modulate them. The data is key to interpreting measurements from many other missions. 

Sounding Rockets

Sounding rockets are suborbital rocket launches used primarily for scientific research. They are designed to take instruments into the upper atmosphere and near space to conduct experiments and gather data about atmospheric conditions, astronomical observations, and even microgravity effects. The term “sounding” is derived from the nautical term “to sound,” which means to take measurements. In the context of rockets, it refers to the taking of measurements of various atmospheric parameters.

Unlike satellites, sounding rockets do not enter orbit around Earth. They follow a parabolic trajectory, which allows them to ascend to significant altitudes before falling back to Earth, typically within a short period ranging from five to twenty minutes. This brief flight is sufficient to collect valuable data from the environment through which the rocket travels, including regions of the atmosphere that are difficult to study by other means, such as the ionosphere and auroral regions.

Sounding rockets are advantageous for their relatively low cost, rapid development times, and their ability to carry a wide range of scientific instruments to altitudes between 50 and 1,500 kilometers. They are also useful for testing or calibrating instruments that will be used on longer-duration space missions.

NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program

For over 40 years NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program has provided critical scientific, technical, and educational contributions to America’s space program and is one of the most robust, versatile, and cost-effective flight programs at NASA.

NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program, funded by NASA’s Heliophysics Division, is managed at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, under NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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