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Poker Flat Research Range Launches 2010’s First Rocket



Fairbanks, Alaska—A NASA sounding rocket launched from Poker Flat Research Range and flew to an altitude of more than 100 vertical miles at 12:01 a.m. Alaska Standard Time on Feb. 9, 2010. The rocket released 12 vials of trimethyl-aluminum that glowed in colors from orange to blue about 70 miles above northern Alaska.

“It was a successful mission,” said Mark Conde, an assistant professor at the Geophysical Institute and the University of Alaska Fairbanks physics department who led the experiment. “The basic process worked spectacularly well, although we did have some anomalies in several aspects of the payload. We're working on the flight data now to understand exactly what happened with these systems. We already have some good leads and we're confident they can be easily reconciled.”

The two-stage Terrier Orion rocket carried 16 vials of trimethyl-aluminum into the upper atmosphere. Researchers use the glow of the harmless chemical to track winds in the upper atmosphere accessible only by rocket. In this mission, called “Ampules,” the rocket was designed to release 12 vials of trimethyl-aluminum using a spring mechanism. Four other vials had their own rocket motors to help track winds farther from the rocket’s path. The 12 spring-loaded vials worked well, but the other four stayed with the rocket, which landed in northern Alaska. Poker Flat Research Range staffers are now recovering the payload.

Scientists stationed at the range, Fort Yukon and Toolik Lake captured data from the rocket through ground-based instruments. The Ampules mission tested the feasibility of releasing trimethyl-aluminum at some distances from the parent rocket to give space physicists a better picture of upper atmospheric winds.

“We saw some extraordinary things in the data,” Conde said.

Another rocket mission is slated for launch from Poker Flat Research Range this month. James LaBelle, a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, will oversee the launch of a Black Brant XII rocket that will fly through an active aurora display above northern Alaska. He is studying electric wave/particle interactions above the visible aurora.

Since specific weather and aurora conditions are required for rocket experiments, no specific launch times are set. The current launch window closes on Feb. 28, 2010. Poker Flat Research Range is the largest land-based sounding rocket range in the world. The Geophysical Institute operates the range under contract to NASA.
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