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University of Iowa scientists hope NASA rocket will answer questions about auroras in Alaska

The Northern Lights over Alaska on February 16, 2017 from the Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks. (NASA)

Locked away in a shack in the small village of Venetia, in northern Alaska, which according to the 2020 census had a population of just 125, University of Iowa doctoral candidate Riley Troyer is participating to a NASA-funded mission to observe the sky.

His duties, in fact, are much more specific and scientific, as he is part of a trio of investigators from the University of Iowa who, over the weekend, flew to Alaska to a three-week mission to better understand a rarely seen type of aurora, also known as the aurora borealis. – which flashes or “pulses”.

“Pulsating aurora” is reminiscent of the rhythmic flash of a distant thunderstorm – except in brilliant purples and greens – and has been compared to a celestial heartbeat or, less romantically, a faulty neon sign.

Via the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-funded mission named “Loss through auroral microburst pulsations,” or LAMP, Troyer — with co-investigator and assistant professor of UI physics and astronomy Allison Jaynes — nightly until March 10 will scan the arctic skies in search of aurora pulsations.

The goal of the mission is to better understand how pulsating auroras work, what causes the phenomenon and what it could mean for Earth.

“We’re trying to figure out if the electrons that create this kind of aurora are very energetic,” Jaynes told The Gazette Monday from her hotel room in Fairbanks, where she’s stationed 250 miles south of Troyer.

Scientists theorize that pulsating auroras have a high-energy component, according to Jaynes, who said the confirmation could be “really significant because it’s energy that comes from space and is deposited in the atmosphere. earthly”.

“So we want to know how much energy comes from outside the Earth and affects the Earth,” she said. “We want to try to measure this total energy.”

The researchers aim to do this by – as soon as they spot the pulsating aurora – launching a 40ft suborbital sounding rocket from a distance just north of Fairbanks. The rocket won’t have the speed to reach orbit and will follow an arc back to Earth – a trip that will only take 10 to 15 minutes.

But the trip should be fruitful. The rocket will be loaded with instruments from collaborators around the world, including NASA, Dartmouth College, the University of New Hampshire, Tokyo Electro-Communications University and the US Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center. Air Force Academy, among others.

“There are a lot of different implications,” Jaynes said of a finding that pulsating auroras do, in fact, have a high-energy component.

“One of the most relevant is that if you have higher energy, you can create chemicals in the atmosphere that deplete the ozone layer,” she said. “You can actually create local ozone losses where these auroras are taking place.”

The research could also shed light on why these auroras are happening, according to Jaynes, who said the theories involve weather both in space and on Earth.

“Right now the sun is more active than it has been in a long time,” she said. “And we really hope that gives us the perfect event because it’s tied to space weather.”

In addition to Jaynes and Troyer, the project has a dozen people in total.

As for what Troyer will do so far north of the launch site, Jaynes said he will collect additional data on the ground as the rocket passes.

“It’s going to be right under the rocket’s path as it flies over,” she said.

Once the pulsating aurora begins, it can last for an hour, giving researchers time to make sure all the pieces are in place to capture what they need. Jaynes admitted, however, that the job can be “very stressful”.

While in Alaska, she and her peers traded workdays for worknights in hopes of fulfilling the purpose of their study in the skies of Alaska. But they also appealed for help from “citizen scientists in Alaska and beyond.”

For those in Alaska, the application involves photo submissions.

“Pulsating auroras can cover huge areas, so scientists can use multiple observations to triangulate measurements and look at a structure from different angles,” according to a blog post about the mission.

“Photographic observations with your location, when you see it, and the width of the area it covers are important, even if the rocket isn’t launching that night.”

“Citizen scientists” outside of Alaska are welcome to submit questions about pulsating auroras – because “questions are the foundation of research, and the team wants to hear what piques your curiosity.”

“We’ll do our best to answer the question, explain why it’s a mystery, and/or see if LAMP might be able to help solve the puzzle.”

Do you have questions for the researchers?

Questions can be submitted on Twitter by tagging @LAMP_rocket and @TweetAurora or by emailing [email protected]

Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; [email protected]

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