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Second window for NASA sounding rocket launch opens

A team of scientists will make another attempt at a launch from Poker Flat Research Range starting this month after uncooperative weather and science conditions hampered efforts earlier this year.

The scientists stayed up nights from Jan. 25 through Feb. 9, waiting for the circumstances that would allow them to launch a NASA sounding rocket over a dynamic aurora display while observing from beneath at a village in northern Alaska.

During that period, which included a few nights’ extension from their original window, conditions for launch never lined up. Some nights featured aurora displays that weren’t perfect for the science. Other nights had good aurora but winds above the rocket range that would shove rocket stages out of areas in which the launch team had permission to land.

Marilia Samara of the Southwest Research Institute is the lead scientist on the aurora experiment. She and her team have returned to Poker Flat, which is about 30 miles north of Fairbanks, to try again during the second launch window, which opens today and runs through March 8.

Samara’s launch is a collaborative effort between co-investigators Robert Michell of the Southwest Research Institute and Keiichi Ogasawara of the Southwest Research Institute and the University of California Berkeley’s John Bonnell. Sounding rocket teams from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., and Poker Flat Research Range, which is operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, are supporting the launch attempts.

Samara will use three particle instruments and six electric and magnetic field probes that extend like arms from the rocket while it arcs 200 miles above the village of Venetie. Her goal is to learn more about the sun-Earth energy connection that powers the aurora and affects our satellites and Global Positioning Systems.

The 48-foot, two-stage rocket will deploy four telescopic and two fold-down arms to measure the heavenly electric field, the magnetic field and plasma density, while the particle detectors bolted on the front of the rocket measure the electrons responsible for the visible light of the aurora. The researchers will do their best to launch when there are clear skies, no moon, an aurora rippling overhead at Venetie and favorable winds at Poker Flat.

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