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Five rockets ready to launch at Poker Flat Research Range

Submitted by Amy Hartley
Phone: 907-474-5823


Scientists are now at Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks waiting for acceptable conditions for the launch of five NASA sounding rockets that will gather information for two scientific experiments. The launch window for the firing of these rockets opened today, Feb. 12, 2009, and extends until March 3, 2009.

Gerald Lehmacher of Clemson University is the principal investigator for one rocket-based experiment, a four-rocket mission to study turbulence in the upper atmosphere. His experiment requires a night with clear skies and no moonlight, but a quiet aurora will suffice for his experiment. The four rockets--35-foot, two-stage Terrier Orions--will release trimethyl aluminum, which creates a glowing vapor trail, nearly 87 miles up into the night sky. Scientists on the ground will use sensitive cameras to track the trails from Poker Flat, Fort Yukon and Coldfoot. Alaskans in those areas may be able to see the vapor trails about 50 degrees above the horizon, Lehmacher said.

Lehmacher will analyze upper-atmospheric winds by seeing how the vapor trails form, how they billow, and how they disperse and diffuse. The four rockets will allow him to take four snapshots of how atmospheric winds evolve. Two rockets will also carry instruments that will measure electron density, neutral temperature, and turbulence.

Kristina Lynch of Dartmouth College is the principal investigator for the other mission, named Cascades II. In the Cascades experiment, a 58-foot, four-stage Black Brant II sounding rocket will blast off from Poker Flat into an active aurora display when the weather is clear above Chatanika and at camera sites in Toolik Lake and Kaktovik, on Alaska's north slope. As the rocket is arcing through the aurora, reaching its peak at about 360 miles over Kaktovik, the rocket's payload will come apart into five different probes that will simultaneously measure how the aurora moves. Lynch also wants to learn more about different aurora structures during the launch.

Three NASA rockets were launched successfully from Poker Flat in January.

Since atmospheric conditions must be just right prior to launch, specific times are not typically set for rocket launches. Therefore, rockets are loaded onto launchers and ready to fly at any time during launch windows. The public is not permitted on Poker Flat Research Range during rocket launches. However, the public may view rocket launches and activity from several vantage points near the range.

Poker Flat Research Range is the largest land-based sounding rocket range in the world. It's located 30 miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. The Geophysical Institute at UAF operates the range under contract to NASA. More than 300 major scientific sounding rockets have launched from the facility since it was founded in 1969.

CONTACT: Poker Flat Research Range at 907-455-2110. Geophysical Institute science writer Ned Rozell at 907-474-7468 or nrozell@gi.alaska.edu.

ON THE WEB: www.gi.alaska.edu/pfrr

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