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Sci-Friday: Weekend rocket launches experiment to solve fundamental aurora mystery

Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 4:40 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - This Saturday, NASA will launch the Black Brant XII rocket high above the Atlantic Ocean. University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Geophysical Institute scientists plan to use this launch to advance their understanding of a key interaction between solar wind and the magnetic fields of planets that produce the aurora, through an experiment called KiNET-X.

Peter Delamere, UAF Professor of Space Physics and head of the project explained the nature of this experiment. “This is a sounding rocket mission that will be launched out of Wallops Island, Virginia, the NASA range there. KiNET-X is a pseudo acronym we concocted. It stands for kinetic scale energy and momentum transport experiment.”

This experiment seeks to understand how large masses of plasma, such as the solar wind, interacts at the small scales of the particle level with the plasma of Earth’s space environment to produce the kind of aurora we see.

Delamere said, “I think everybody that’s seen the aurora knows this, [that] it appears sometimes in these really really thin filamentary curtains, and the question is: how do things evolve into these really small scale structures? The space weather conditions that produce the aurora involves extremely large scales. Many many planetary radii in scale. And why is it we see things appearing at these very very small scales?”

The KiNET-X experiment will try to replicate the interaction of these two magnetically joined regions of space, but on an extremely small scale. The Black Brant XII will send canisters of barium thermite into the ionosphere, producing plasma clouds, electromagnetic fields, and waves.

“So we’re looking at the interaction of the barium cloud and the ambient plasma, and in the process this interaction is expected to accelerate electrons. Accelerated electrons are what produce the aurora. We have a known source of energy and momentum, we have all the conditions well quantified, and now we want to understand how the interaction of that cloud and the ambient environment can produce these electrons that can produce the aurora,” said Delamere.

While it’s not the goal of the experiment, this weekend rocket launch has the potential to produce an artificial aurora for people living in Bermuda.

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