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Wednesday, 24 January 2007 05:28

NASA's JOULE II mission launches 4 rockets to study Northern Lights above Alaska

On January 19, 2007 (starting at about 3:29 Alaska Standard Time), NASA launched a project called JOULE II that consists of four rockets to study the aurora display over the skies of northern Alaska. The mission is geared to learn more about the electrical heating of the thin upper atmosphere above the Earth’s surface.

The NASA Sounding Rockets Program Office (SRPO) developed the JOULE II mission, which is part of its Sounding Rocket Campaign at the Poker Flat Research Range (PFRR). PFRR, which is located north of Fairbanks, Alaska,  is run by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which operates under a NASA contract.

The name JOULE is derived from the type of ion heating mechanism that is believed to predominate in the E-region of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. (The E-region, or Kennelly-Heaviside layer, is the layer of ionized gas that forms about 56 to 93 miles (90 to 150 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.) The primary goal of JOULE is the "multiple-scale study of high-latitude joule heating during a substorm event". JOULE II is an improved mission scenario from the JOULE missions launched earlier in the decade.

The Sounding Rocket Campaign includes four missions to investigate disturbances in the Earth's ionosphere. Early missions consisted of a series of observations of the ionosphere by ground-based science instruments. Present missions involve the launching of a series of sounding rocket. In all, ten sounding rockets will carry a variety of payloads into the ionosphere to make specific measurements of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The four sounding rockets sent up on January 19th consisted of two Terrier Orion rockets, one Black Brant V rocket, and one Terrier-Black Brant rocket. The first pair of rockets was launched one minute apart. Fifteen seconds after the launch of the second rocket, the next pair of rockets was launched, again one minute apart from each other. The flights were each about 12 minutes in duration.

Each pair of rockets consisted of one chemical-release rocket that released a visible tracking material of trimethyl aluminum vapor, which became a milky white color when exposed to the oxygen atoms present in the upper atmosphere. Instruments aboard the second rocket measured the glowing vapor trail as it was forced to move within the winds of the upper atmosphere. Such data captured information about the winds and turbulence between 60 and 120 miles (96.5 and 193 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.

Additional information and photographs about JOULE II is at the University of Calgary, https://www.phys.ucalgary.ca/sp/projects/joule2/index.html, and NASA’s Wallop Flight Facility, https://www.wff.nasa.gov/code810/news/joule.html.


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