Nasa fired tracer rockets into the Northern Lights and the results were amazing

The Northern Lights are an impressive sight as they are, but last Friday the aurora borealis got even more colourful thanks to a pair of specially-designed rockets.

As part of a mission to understand the auroras and the role they play in energy entering and leaving Earth’s geospace system, two Black Brant XI-A sounding rockets were launched from a base in north Finland.

They soared to 320km before releasing a visible gas that illuminated the sky in a range of amazing colours.

The rockets were the first of eight planned launches from the  Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment, or AZURE. It’s a Nasa-funded initiative that aims to study the processes occurring inside the Earth’s polar cusp — where the planet’s magnetic field lines bend down into the atmosphere.

The Northern Lights over Finland (Nasa)

This bending allows particles from space to intermingle with those from Earth in the ionosphere.

When the rockets went up, they had special sensors on them to track the atmospheric density and temperature to trigger the exact moment to release the tracer gas.

As it fell, the gas ionised and produced clouds of colour that gave scientists an idea of the flow of particles. It also happened to create an impressive view for onlookers who uploaded footage to social media.

Nasa posted the results on Twitter (@NASA_Wallops/Twitter)

‘By tracking the movement of these colorful clouds via ground-based photography and triangulating their moment-by-moment position in three dimensions, AZURE will provide valuable data on the vertical and horizontal flow of particles in two key regions of the ionosphere over a range of different altitudes,’ explained Miles Hatfield from Nasa’s Goddard Space Center in the US.

Personnel from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia conduct payload tests for the AZURE mission at the Andøya Space Center in Norway.
(Nasa Wallops Flight Facility)

‘Such measurements are critical if we are to truly understand the effects of the mysterious yet beautiful aurora.’

‘The results will be key to a better understanding of the effects of auroral forcing on the atmosphere, including how and where the auroral energy is deposited.’


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