Today, NASA will shoot two rockets into the Northern Lights or aurora borealis in an attempt to understand how solar storms interact with our atmosphere.
Today, On March 23, NASA is planning to do something never heard of before. The American space agency will be shooting two rockets into the fascinating northern lights, also known as aurora borealis. This may sound bizarre to you, but there is a good scientific reason behind NASA shooting rockets into the famously patterned lights. And the reason is that NASA wants to better understand these lights which are generated by massive bursts of energy released by solar storms. This radiation, which also contain electromagnetic radiation, hits Earth’s atmosphere and cause aurora borealis. Scientists want to understand exactly how these lights containing charged particles interact with our gaseous atmosphere.
What are northern lights
A lot is known about the northern lights. We know that these are dancing waves of lights seen near the northern hemisphere and appear in almost a curtain like shape. Generally, they appear in neon green luminescence, but their appearance can vary from bright orange to a yellowish tinge. Famous scientist Galileo Galilei was the first to coin the term aurora borealis for this phenomenon in 1619. We also know that these northern lights are seen in this particular geography of 10-20 degrees from the poles. The lights in the northern hemisphere are called northern lights or aurora borealis and the ones in the southern hemisphere are called aurora australis.
NASA looks to get to the truth behind solar storms and aurora borealis
While much is known about them, there are still things scientists do not quite understand about the northern lights. In particular, they do not understand how they interact with our atmosphere. Our atmosphere is divided into multiple layers. The bottom few layers are called a neutral gas atmosphere as it contains oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen etc in their breathable neutral state and the electrons are in steady orbits.
The upper layer of the atmosphere is, however, highly ionized due to constant bombardment of electromagnetic energy from the Sun. During solar storms, these events intensify further and the energy often takes electrons out of the gas’s steady orbit and adds positive charge to them. This charged state of the atmosphere creates the fourth state of matter called plasma. And these two layers of atmosphere exist together, sharing a boundary. And we know very little about these boundaries.
This is where NASA wants to improve its understanding. It appears that during a solar storm event, which eventually gives rise to northern lights, these boundaries of plasma and neutral gas atmosphere behave unnaturally. During aurora borealis, these boundaries can rise up, fall lower or even fold among themselves, and so far nobody knows why.
NASA’s solar storm mission
The mission by NASA is called Ion-Neutral Coupling during Active Aurora mission or INCAA. Today, NASA will deploy two sounding rockets, which will explode about 100 kilometers in the sky, around the region where the boundaries of upper and lower atmosphere intersect. These rockets contain small launch vehicles that will float in space for a few minutes, then return to Earth, carrying vital information.
The first vehicle will release colorful chemicals called vapor tracers to find out how winds near the northern lights travel. The second vehicle will measure temperature and density of the plasma near the aurora.