Monday, November 29, 2010

More background information

Well, we've run into a problem while going through the last steps in preparation. Unfortunately for us, it is a difficult problem to solve and means that we are having a person fly over from the US with a replacement part. This is going to cost us at least 2 days of work. This is frustrating, because the last day of our launch "window" is Dec 12. In any case, these things happen now and then, so we deal with it and charge ahead.

So, in the meantime, maybe we can start discussing some things about space so that the comments I will make later will make more sense. For starters, I should make it clear that the "space" we are talking about is the space between the Sun and Earth (well, and the other planets, too). What I will not talk about at this point are stars, interstellar space, early universe stuff, etc. Not that these aren't interesting topics, but let's take one thing at a time!!!

So, some basic things you will need to know to help understand what we are trying to do:

1. Space is NOT empty!! In fact, the space between the Sun and Earth is filled with electrically charged particles (mostly electrons and protons) and a solar magnetic field.

2. Maybe you already know that Earth has its own magnetic field (which is what turns a compass needle), too. In fact, the shape of its magnetic field is very much like that of a bar magnet. An interesting point, though, is that the north magnetic pole is not in the same place as the northern geographic pole (likewise for the southern poles). The reason for this is complicated and not really clear.......

3. Finally, electricity and magnetism are very closely connected. Electric motors, for example, convert electric fields to magnetic fields to make things spin. It may be no surprise to you, then, that electrically charged particles tend to drift (or flow) along magnetic field lines.

OK, so here I am sitting in a very northern place, getting ready to launch a rocket. Before I get into "why here", I should give some background information.

The field of "space science" mostly has to do with trying to understand how energy in the solar wind gets transferred to Earth. We certainly do know that there is a strong connection between the solar wind and our upper atmosphere and, also, that a lot of energy is dumped into the atmosphere. For now, I'll skip the details about why this whole problem is important (otherwise I'll never get to talk about the rocket!).

Remember, Earth's magnetic field is shaped like a bar magnet, right? Well, that's only partially true. In fact, the solar wind has a dramatic effect on the shape of Earth's field and distorts it dramatically. One good picture of this can be seen at (look at the brownish colored figure on that page). I hope that you can see that the solar wind basically sweeps Earth's magnetic field away from the Sun. The result is the formation of a "magnetosphere" around Earth, whose shape is very much controlled by the solar wind and can change quite dramatically over the course of a few minutes when the Sun gets excited and spews out large quantities of stuff.

There is an important detail in that picture, located in the upper left corner of the image and labeled "polar cusp". Well, the feature is important for us, since it is that specific region of space that we are studying with this rocket. What's the big deal about something that seems to be a relatively small detail in big the picture? Well, some important things happen in that region. Specifcally, this is a key region where ionized oxygen is known to escape from Earth's upper atmosphere and, we believe, can also drive jets of atomic oxygen up to very high altitudes (hundreds of kilometers). The objective of the rocket we are trying to launch is to try to understand the details how this works.

That's all for today, except that I will leave you with a photo that shows where we are working (the Kjell Henriksen Observatory in Svalbard). The vehicle in the picture is a sort of snocat and is how we get to work each day. And, of course, the aurora overhead is obvious.

By the way, we had snow for most of today, but things finally cleared up and we had aurora overhead again. Finally, you can find more details about the launch at several websites:

Our own lab website, including what we call "daily updates" with details of what happened during the day. There are also several other links that lead to more photos and some websites that we stare at while trying to decide when to launch.

Andoya Rocket Range is especially interesting, with lots of photos if you click on the links in the mission blog at the bottom of the page. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010



Welcome to a blog that will describe what we are doing with the RENU rocket. Before getting into any details, I should explain what we are trying to do.

From the point of view of science goals, we are trying to see if the same things that cause the northern lights might also heat up the very high altitude part of the atmosphere and cause plumes of oxygen to stream upwards - something like 1000 km or maybe more.

In order to do this, we have put a large rocket together which is now ready to go, from the north coast of Norway. We, on the other hand, are sitting in a place called Longyearbyen in Svalbard (VERY far north). We are sitting here so we can get a good look at the sky above to see aurora and decide when to launch. Once launched, the rocket will fly right over us, measuring many different things as it does so.

We are just finishing preparations. Below is a photo of the rocket just before it was placed on the launch rail. The rocket is actually quite big. It is a four stage rocket, meaning that there are four rocket motors that fire one after the other. The total length is about 67 feet, but the diameter is only about 17 inches. It will reach an altitude of about 475 km and travel a distance of more than 1000 km.

Once the rocket is on the "launch rail", it becomes our job to monitor the skies above and the solar wind in space to decided when to launch. So far, things are still being finished up with the payload assembly.