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University of Iowa scientists, NASA, preparing to launch rocket into the Aurora Borealis

NASA/University of Iowa Northern Lights
NASA/University of Iowa Northern Lights
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Scientists at the University of Iowa will be in Alaska next week to launch a sounding rocket in order to better understand a unique type of aurora within the Aurora Borealis.

Along with several other organizations and universities, UI and NASA scientists with the Loss through Auroral Microburst Pulsations (LAMP) will send the rocket up through the atmosphere to sample the energy of a certain type of aurora called pulsating aurora.

While many photographs show the characteristic curtains and pillars of the Northern Lights, most are unable to capture some of the subtleties within the aurora.

"This type of aurora, in general, is much higher energy than the arcs and curtains that you see in the photographs, so we're interested to see how that energy is flowing from space into earth's atmosphere," explains Dr. Allison Jaynes, a co-investigator for the LAMP mission, and an assistant professor with the University of Iowa's Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The LAMP mission will use a smaller rocket than you might be used to seeing to gather measurements of electric and magnetic fields as well as particle energy.

They're most interested in the regions with the highest particle energy which is below low earth orbit, so a NASA sounding rocket was the perfect tool for the mission.

"Sounding rockets are quite different than what you think of as rockets that put satellites into orbit. They're much smaller, they go up a couple hundred to a thousand kilometers then come back down in about 15 minutes in a parabolic flight," says Jaynes. "We get a very short snapshot of this feature, but we're right in the middle of it, you can't get here with a regular orbiting satellite."

Understanding these pulsating auroras will give scientists a better understanding of space weather and how high-energy particles affect the planet.

Solar storms can impact GPS signals, satellite capability, and even the ozone layer.

"This type of aurora we think contains very high energies, and so we're interested to know exactly how high the energy is within this aurora, and that's important because we want to know, in general, how much energy is coming from space, hitting our atmosphere, and potentially affecting things like ozone that have implications for humans on earth," says Jaynes.

The earliest a launch could occur is February 24, with their launch window remaining open until March 10.

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If you'd like to learn more about the LAMP mission, you can visit their website here.

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