MessageToEagle.com - On a cold February night in Poker Flat, Alaska, a team of scientists from NASA's Goddard
Space Flight Center of Greenbelt, Md., and The Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, Calif. will
launch a sounding rocket up through the Northern Lights.
The rocket could launch as early as the night of Feb. 2, 2013, but the team has a two-week window in order to find the
perfect launch conditions.
Armed with a series of instruments developed specifically for this mission, the VISIONS (VISualizing Ion Outflow via
Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm) rocket will soar high through the arctic sky to study the auroral wind, which
is a strong but intermittent stream of oxygen atoms from Earth's atmosphere into outer space.
Although the rocket will survive only fifteen minutes before splashing down in the Arctic Ocean, the information it
obtains will provide answers to some long-standing questions, says Doug Rowland, who is the VISIONS principal investigator at Goddard.
Click on image to enlarge
VISIONS will study how oxygen atoms leave Earth's atmosphere under the influence of the aurora. Most of the atmosphere is
bound by Earth's gravity, but a small portion of it gets heated enough by the aurora that it can break free, flowing
outwards until it reaches near-Earth space.
The atoms that form this wind initially travel at about 300 miles per hour --
only one percent of the speed needed to overcome gravity and leave Earth's atmosphere.
"This oxygen would normally never gain enough energy to leave the atmosphere," says Rowland.
"On the other hand, at very high altitudes, satellite experiments have measured oxygen atoms moving faster than 50
miles per second. These experiments have shown that if oxygen can reach these high altitudes, there are plenty of
ways for it to gain even more energy, in which case the oxygen atoms can escape near-Earth space entirely.
What we don't know is how the oxygen gets enough energy to fight against gravity and reach the higher altitudes
where these slingshots are active."
To find out what is doing the heavy lifting to kick start the oxygen, Rowland and his team are waiting to launch
the rocket during the active phase of an aurora, which only lasts from 20 to 30 minutes.
Auroras indicate a dramatic increase in the energy input to the upper atmosphere, creating a golden opportunity
for the rocket to study the escaping oxygen, and learn more about what gives the oxygen the energy it needs to
escape from Earth.
The VISIONS mission will highlight the advantages of using a sounding rocket instead of a satellite to gather the
In addition to being smaller and less expensive, sounding rockets provide vertical profiles of the
auroral environment, on both the upleg and downleg portions of their parabolic trajectory, with speeds much less than
those of orbiting satellites.
To solve the mystery behind the auroral wind, the sounding rocket will use four unique instruments. The key instrument
is Goddard's MIniaturized Low-energy Energetic Neutral Atom imager, known as MILENA, which will directly observe the
oxygen flowing out of the atmosphere.
In the past, scientists have only been able to study the up-flowing oxygen on a small scale -- because the oxygen
is electrically charged, it is confined by Earth's magnetic field, and instruments can only measure the oxygen
close to its source region.
The revolutionary MILENA instrument, however, contains twin imagers that can observe
the oxygen further along on its journey, after it has stolen an electron from a neutral gas atom in the atmosphere.
This photo was taken on November 23, 2010 in Sodankylä, Lapland, FI.
This allows the oxygen to break free from its magnetic prison and travel a long distance, where it can be detected
remotely. By mapping the oxygen, MILENA acts as a type of camera that builds up a picture of the auroral wind using
oxygen atoms instead of light.
Although the MILENA instrument itself is new, it already has a successful history. The instrument was modeled after
a similar imager known as MINI-ME (for Miniature Imager for Neutral Ionospheric Atoms and Magnetospheric Electrons)
that flew on the NASA/U.S. Dept. of Defense FASTSAT (Fast Affordable Science and Technology Satellite) mission,
which ended in Nov., 2012, after two years on-orbit.
"What we're doing is launching into a specific period of intense geomagnetic activity," Collier said.
"With VISIONS, it may be the case we're not getting a whole lot of data, but we get the data we want."
The Wandering Stars
In ancient civilizations, people pondered the meanings of the stars, watching for clues to their survival: the beginning of planting and
harvesting times, the seasons, and even portents of danger.
They soon noticed that certain stars didn't stay in place, but wandered amongst the fixed star field.
"The Most Profound Mystery In All Of Science" -
Little is known about this force and its its repulsive gravity, which is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
The riddles of dark matter and cosmic inflation, along with dark energy, these are the three pillars of modern cosmological theory,"
and none of them can be explained with physics that we know," Michael Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics says.
Doesn't Secret Dark Matter Exist?
The more scientists study dark matter they know lesser and are not particularly optimistic about their results.
After completing this study, we know less about dark matter than we did before," said Matt Walker, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
A mysterious and still unknown substance is totally invisible in the Universe and reveals its presence only through its gravitational pull.
Mysteries Of A Dark Universe
Cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, has been turned on its head by a stunning discovery that the universe is flying apart in all directions at an ever-increasing rate. Is the universe really as we think it should be? Or is nature somehow fooling us?
The astronomers whose data revealed this accelerating universe have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Black Holes With No 'Table Manners' Eat Two Courses At Once!
It is still unknown how the supermassive black holes (SMBH) in galaxy centres accrete gas and grow.
Researchers from the University of Leicester (UK) and Monash University in Australia have investigated how some black holes got so big so fast that they are billions of times heavier than the sun.
Mercury Surprises Scientists
On March 17, MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space Environment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) completed its one-year primary mission, orbiting Mercury, capturing nearly 100,000 images, and recording data
that reveals new information about the planet's core, topography, and the mysterious radar bright material in the permanently shadowed areas near the poles.
Living Earth Simulator - Supercomputer Predicting The Future
In Douglas Adams book the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy we encounter a machine called Deep Thought. It is the most powerful computer ever built. Deep Thought is capable of answering questions
concerning life, the Universe, and simply everything. Now scientists are planning to create a similar machine. It is called the Living Earth Simulator (LES).
Warp-Speed Planets Are Some Of The Fastest Objects In The Milky Way
Warped planets are some of the fastest objects in the Milky Way and they zoom through space near the speed of light.
Some years ago astronomers were astonished when they they found the first runaway star flying out of our Galaxy at a speed of 1.5 million miles per hour.
The discovery intrigued theorists, who wondered: If a star can get tossed outward at such an extreme velocity, could the same thing happen to planets?
Though the universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, the discovery of a single variable star in 1923 altered the
course of modern astronomy. And, at least one famous astronomer of the time lamented that the discovery had shattered his world view.
Kepler Will Find Goldilocks Planet Within The Next Two Years
NASA's Kepler spacecraft is discovering a veritable avalanche of alien worlds. Recent finds include planets with double suns, massive
"super-Earths" and "hot Jupiters," and a miniature solar system.
The variety of planets circling distant suns is as wonderful as it is surprising.