VISIONS: Seeing the aurora in a new light

Feb 01, 2013
The MIniaturized Low-energy Energetic Neutral Atom imager, MILENA, was built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to fly on the VISIONS (VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm) sounding rocket. MILENA will help track how oxygen moves through the atmosphere in response to aurora. Credit: Credit: NASA

On a cold February night in Poker Flat, Alaska, a team of scientists will wait patiently for the exotic red and green glow of an aurora to illuminate the sky. Instead of simply admiring the view, this group 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 , the information it obtains will provide answers to some long-standing questions, says Doug Rowland, who is the VISIONS principal investigator at Goddard.

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 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 new information. 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. Further, rockets can be launched from the right place at just the right time to study the aurora – unlike a satellite that can only encounter an aurora when it flies through it by chance.

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 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 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.

The other instruments aboard VISIONS, including the Rocket-borne Auroral Imager (RAI), the Fields and Thermal Plasma (FTP) instrument, and the Energetic Electron Analyzer/Energetic Ion Analyzer (EEA/EIA), will work with MILENA to detect where the auroral activity occurs and measure the auroral energy that heats the . Goddard is providing MILENA and the FTP, while the RAI and EEA/EIA instruments are provided by The of El Segundo, Calif.

NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Va., including the NASA Operations Contract (NSROC), is providing the rocket and payload support systems. The Poker Flat launch range is operated by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, under contract to .

Although the VISIONS mission will last only 15 minutes, Michael Collier, a planetary scientist at Goddard who is the MILENA instrument lead, said the information gathered in its short trip will be crucial.

"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."

All they have to do is wait.

Explore further: Full lunar eclipse delights Americas, first of year

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Rocket launches from Poker Flat Research Range

Feb 27, 2012

On Saturday, Feb. 18 at 8:41 p.m. Alaska time, scientists launched a NASA sounding rocket from Poker Flat Research Range into a brilliant aurora display. The rocket mission, designed to gather information on space weather ...

Clemson rocket launches test Alaskan auroras

Mar 16, 2007

It may have been 40 degrees below zero at the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska, but aurora and weather came together one recent winter night in a perfect match for Clemson University researchers and students ...

JOULE II rockets launch with success

Jan 22, 2007

From Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks, four NASA rockets launched into an aurora display over northern Alaska, starting at 3:29 a.m. Alaska Standard Time. Scientists hope to learn more about electrical heating ...

Recommended for you

Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

22 hours ago

The soil on Mars may be suitable for cultivating food crops – this is the prognosis of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

23 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

Meteorite studies suggest hidden water on Mars

23 hours ago

Geochemical calculations by researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology to determine how the water content of Mars has changed over the past 4.5 billion years suggest as yet unidentified reservoirs of water ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

cantdrive85
2.5 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2013
"VISIONS will study how oxygen atoms leave Earth's atmosphere under the influence of the aurora."

A better understanding of magnetospheric and solar circuits would eliminate the mystery surrounding the phenomenon. The aurora and it's constituent "gases" are a plasma, gravity's effect is negligible. The oxygen and other "gases" are being accelerated in the electric fields present in the aurora.

More news stories

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton movement within ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...

Tech giants look to skies to spread Internet

The shortest path to the Internet for some remote corners of the world may be through the skies. That is the message from US tech giants seeking to spread the online gospel to hard-to-reach regions.