Rocket flown through northern lights to help unlock space weather mysteries

Artist's depiction of the ICI-4 rocket which launched today (Image: Trond Abrahamsen, Andøya Space Center)

The northern lights are more than one of nature's most awe inspiring sights, they are an electromagnetic phenomenon that can adversely affect power grids and communications and navigation systems. Researchers from the University of Oslo have flown a rocket through the lights to take a closer look with the aim of gathering data that will help in predicting space weather.

The northern lights are caused by solar flares from the Sun. But these same solar flares are the source of more than just the Aurora Borealis. On the Earth’s day side, sunlight strips electrons loose from the atmosphere, forming clouds of electrons that drift across the Arctic and, although they are invisible to our eyes, appear on radar screens and in super-sensitive cameras.

Within just a few hours, electron clouds that form during the day over North America can cross the Arctic and reach Scandinavia after being drawn out of the polar region by the northern lights. The University of Oslo researchers have found that it is when electron clouds coincide with the northern lights that the most serious interference to navigation and satellite systems occurs. It is these rare but disruptive events that the ICI4 rocket, which launched today from Andoya Space Center in Norway, is tasked with exploring.

"We wished to find the causes of these interferences," says Jøran Moen, Project Director. "We need this knowledge to establish a forecasting system for space weather."

The rocket had been ready to go from February 9, but it wasn't until today that the ideal conditions presented themselves. The team not only had to wait for the right local weather conditions, but the right solar weather conditions where the electron clouds coincided with the northern lights, so the rocket could fly through the phenomenon and collect its measurements.

Ground-based instruments, such as the EISCAT incoherent scatter radars in Northern Norway and Svalbard, located midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, confirmed that the rocket was on target to fly through a space weather phenomenon in an active auroral region. However, because the target was moving at around 1,000 km/s, the data gathered by the rocket will need to be examined before it is known for sure whether the rocket did indeed successfully intersect the intended space weather phenomenon.

Currently, there is no available technological solution to eliminate the disruption caused to communication and navigation systems by solar weather, or a way to provide enough warning to be of real practical use. The DISCOVR satellite, which was launched last week and is currently on its way to a point between the Earth and the Sun, is intended to act as an early warning space weather station, but the University of Oslo researchers hope ICI4 will also help provide more knowledge on the subject.

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