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A rocket to see through the northern lights?

The northern lights are beautiful when you see them from the ground. But they can be dangerous for your life if you're in a plane crossing an area where they are active. This is because your plane can lose radio contact for a long time when flying above the northern polar region. This is why a Norwegian professor of physics is about to launch a rocket to discover the mysteries of the northern lights. The 9-meter long rocket should be launched between November 28 and December 7, 2008. It should reach an altitude of 350 kilometers and its flying time will be only 10 minutes. Let's hope that the embarked sensors function correctly. But read more...
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Written by Roland Piquepaille, Inactive on

The northern lights are beautiful when you see them from the ground. But they can be dangerous for your life if you're in a plane crossing an area where they are active. This is because your plane can lose radio contact for a long time when flying above the northern polar region. This is why a Norwegian professor of physics is about to launch a rocket to discover the mysteries of the northern lights. The 9-meter long rocket should be launched between November 28 and December 7, 2008. It should reach an altitude of 350 kilometers and its flying time will be only 10 minutes. Let's hope that the embarked sensors function correctly. But read more...

Professor Jøran Moen and his rocket

You can see on the left a picture of Jøran Moen in front of the rocket that will try to uncover some of the mysteries of the northern lights. "'If we succeed in flying through the northern lights, we will set a world record in measurements of highly dissolved electronic precipitation in these lights,' Professor Moen points out." (Credit for photo: Yngve Vogt, University of Oslo) Here is a link to a larger version of this picture.

Moen is Professor of Physics and a member of the research group for Plasma and Space Physics in the Department of Physics at the University of Oslo.

But why did Moen start this project? Here are some of his motivations. "Because of the curvature of Earth, the airplanes flying the polar routes have to use high-frequency radio communication. The radio signals are sent via the ionosphere, which lies between 80 and 500 kilometres above the landscape. This consists of a layer of gas with electronic particles that reflect the signals back to Earth. When the northern lights are active, they create so much turbulence in the electronic clouds that the radio signals are cut off. In addition it is not unusual for solar storms to cause inaccuracies of up to 100 metres on the GPS. Professor Moen is planning to use the registrations from the rocket to gain a better understanding of the connection between the northern lights and the disturbances to navigation systems and radio signals."

Now, how will this experiment work? "The rocket is equipped to measure the electric fields and waves of the northern lights, particles of low and high energy in these lights, and fine structures in the electronic clouds. Until now it has only been possible to examine the dissolution of electronic structures of a few hundred metres of a northern light. The rocket instruments from the University of Oslo can concentrate on structures down to a few metres."

And what kind of results can we expect? "The rocket is filled with advanced instruments. In its basement at the Institute of Physics, the University of Oslo has developed a new instrument for measuring the fine structures of electronic clouds. The European space organisation (ESA) is interested in using this instrument in satellites for forecasting space weather. 'The importance of better forecasts of space weather will increase with the escalating offshore activities in the Barents Sea. Offshore is dependent on stable radio and satellite connections and precise navigation,' Professor Moen explains."

I'm a little bit frustrated by the lack of details about this rocket. One of the obvious reasons is that I don't read Norwegian. If you have access to more details, please drop me a note. Thanks.

Sources: Yngve Vogt, Apollon Magazine, University of Oslo, November 11, 2008; and various websites

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