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Aurora Experiment Streaks Into Alaska's Sky on Small NASA Rocket (Photos)

PolarNOx launch
NASA's PolarNOx experiment launched on a Black Brant IX sounding rocket Jan. 27, 2017, from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska. (Image credit: NASA/Jamie Adkins)

A sounding rocket flew successfully into the Alaskan sky Jan. 27 to track down nitric oxide, a byproduct of auroras (northern lights) that form in the region.

The Polar Night Nitric Oxide experiment (PolarNOx) lifted off from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska and flew almost 176 miles (283 kilometers) high. 

The mission's goal was to see how much nitric oxide there is in the atmosphere, and how high it goes. Nitric oxide is generated during an aurora but is not "significantly destroyed" during the polar night, and under certain conditions it could make its way into the stratosphere and destroy ozone, NASA officials said in a statement. The ozone changes could in turn change stratospheric temperature and affect wind circulation on the Earth's surface.

PolarNOx reached an altitude of almost 176 miles (283 kilometers) during a sounding rocket launch Jan. 27, allowing it to investigate the levels of nitric oxide in the atmosphere. (Image credit: NASA/Jamie Adkins)

"The rocket team did a great job of pointing us at the star and our spectrograph saw it clearly throughout the flight," Scott Bailey, the principal investigator for PolarNOx from Virginia Tech, said in the statement. "We got plenty of data to work through."

Auroras are created when charged particles streaming from the sun (also known as the solar wind) energize gases in the magnetosphere, which is a region of the upper atmosphere. When the gases release this added energy, they also emit light particles (photons) in specific wavelengths, which are visible as different colors in auroras.

Another stunning view of NASA's PolarNOx experiment and its Black Brant IX sounding rocket launching from from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska on Jan. 27, 2017. (Image credit: NASA/Jamie Adkins)

PolarNOx is the first of three missions that will launch from the range between January and March. The others, which will include two sounding rockets each, will further probe the nature of auroras, including "the interaction of the solar wind, the magnetosphere, Earth's upper atmosphere and the structure of the resulting aurora," NASA said.

The other missions are expected to fly between Feb. 13 and March 3.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.