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
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: