Dipping into the aurora

Alaska's Geophysical Institute successfully launches a rocket into the aurora borealis.
By | Published: February 9, 2003 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
In an attempt to better understand aurorae, scientists and engineers have launched the first of a series of rockets that will fly through the aurora borealis this year.
Rocket Launch from Poker Flats Research Range in Alaska.
The rocket carried a payload designed to measure high-frequency wave signals related to aurorae.
Chuck Johnson
Several nights passed before conditions were right, but on January 24 the Poker Flat Research Range finally kicked off its 2003 season with its first launch of the year. Illuminating the Alaskan sky at 10:50 pm PST, the Terrier-Black Brant IX rocket soared 240 miles (385 kilometers) above ground and through an active aurora. During its flight, instruments aboard the rocket obtained measurements of high-frequency waves associated with the aurora.

Part of the High Bandwidth Auroral Rocket (HIBAR) mission, the flight collected data that will help scientists better understand high-frequency waves and turbulence generated by aurorae. The rocket’s unrecoverable payload included recently developed instrumentation that records high-frequency waves ranging between 1 and 5 Mhz. HIBAR scientists will analyze the results along with other measurements obtained by similar rockets in 2002 and 1997. The team hopes the findings will support a theory describing characteristics of aurorae and the radio waves they produce.

HIBAR Rocket Passing Through Aurora
The rocket flew 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Earth through the aurora to obtain measurements of high-frequency radio waves created by the aurora.
Jeff Pederson
“Because the waves cycle at millions of times per second, we used special, high-bandwidth instruments to measure the waves,” says HIBAR Principal Investigator James LaBelle. “The special instruments allowed us to receive data from the rocket at a rate higher than any previous aurora sounding rocket to date.”

Poker Flat Research Range, located about 30 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, is operated by the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute under contract from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, making it the world’s only scientific rocket launching facility owned by a university. Founded 35 years ago, Poker Flat has launched more than 250 major high-altitude sounding and 1,500 meteorological rockets to study atmospheric research on ranging from aurorae, the ozone layer, solar protons, and electric, magnetic, and ultraviolet fields.