NASA Is About to Blast Two Rockets Into the Northern Lights

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet captured a stunning view of an aurora under a full moon in September 2021.

Thomas Pesquet/ESA

On March 23, NASA plans Send two rockets over a hundred miles across the eartheach perfectly tuned to penetrate one of nature’s most extraordinary works of art: the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis.

Although we know quite a bit about light shows like this one, such as their distinctive neon green glow and their abundance near the poles, there are still some knowledge gaps.

More specifically, scientists aren’t entirely sure how auroras interact with Earth’s natural atmosphere, which is exactly the goal of the agency’s upcoming endeavor, dubbed Ion-Neutral Coupling During the Active Aurora Mission, or INCAA decrypt.

What we don’t know about the Northern Lights

Think of our planet’s atmosphere as layered, something like a cake. We’re on the bottom tier.

Down here, elements like oxygen and nitrogen are balanced, breathable, and keep electrons stable in atomic orbit. This is the so-called neutral gas atmosphere.

As we rise through the layers things change.

The upper layers of our atmosphere are exposed to the sun’s rays in ways we aren’t, and those rays change the composition of neighboring atoms. They knock electrons, which normally have a negative charge, out of their orbit and turn them into positive particles. In fact, this environment is so different from the neutral gas atmosphere that it’s not even considered a gas anymore. It is a fourth state of matter known as plasma.

And the existence of these two atmosphere types means that there is a shift from one to the other. The line isn’t clear, but it’s definitely there. And when auroras form, they change things even more.

in summary, Aurorae occur when the sun ejects a bunch of charged electrons, from its own ocean-like plasma body, in an event called coronal mass ejection. These electrons are sometimes trapped in Earth’s atmosphere, interacting with other particles and combining to create incredible, colorful lighting. But here’s what we don’t know.

What are these aurora particles doing to the space in our atmosphere where neutral gas meets plasma? What happens at the border? According to the INCAA team, auroras could cause the border region to drop lower, rise, or even fold in on itself.

“All of these factors make this an interesting physics problem to study,” Stephen Kaeppler, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Clemson University in South Carolina and principal investigator on the INCAA mission, said in a statement.

Entry into the Northern Lights

Kaeppler and the rest of the INCAA mission team will launch two research payloads from a launch pad in Poker Flat, Alaska. Each will be attached to two separate rockets, called sounding rockets, directly into an active aurora. These ships are small launch vehicles that float in space for just a few minutes and then fall back to earth. On descent, however, the payloads will have received buckets of valuable information about the aurora.

Rocket One, the team says, will release trails of vapor — similar to colorful chemicals used in firecrackers — to track winds moving near the aurora. It’s like letting the air die watching it move. Then the second rocket will measure the temperature and density of the plasma near the aurora.

In a few days we might be able to tick off another problem endless list of physics puzzles.

NASA Is About to Blast Two Rockets Into the Northern Lights Source link NASA Is About to Blast Two Rockets Into the Northern Lights

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