A Utah scientist on a dark hilltop near Fort Nelson is playing a key role in research using a rocket to unravel secrets of the aurora borealis.
Under a joint project of Utah State University and the University of Alaska, a $30 million research rocket was to be launched from Fairbanks, Alaska, Friday night following the go-ahead from the Fort Nelson research station."Fort Nelson is our primary location," said Peter Mace, a researcher with Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State. "It's kind of the heartland of the aurora."
Mace's job was to watch the sky and notify Fairbanks to launch the rocket when the aurora, also known as the northern lights, was at its peak. He would then monitor high-tech sensors from a 30-foot trailer at Fort Nelson.
"I have an easy job," said Mace who had back-ups at secondary research stations at Peace River, Alberta, and Watson Lake, Yukon. "I'll sit back in an easy chair and watch through a clear plastic roof."
The aurora borealis is essentially a solar-powered light show, most commonly viewed at northern latitudes.
The sun powers an electrical discharge in the earth's polar upper atmosphere, and the light is the glow of atoms and molecules produced by the interaction of solar wind and the magnetic field.
Sensors at Fort Nelson, about 500 miles north of Vancouver, were set up to read the chemistry of the color bands of the aurora and the relationship among the solar winds, the upper atmosphere and the earth's magnetic field.
"Studying the aurora has been enough to keep me interested for a decade," Mace said. "It's a new event every single time."
The rocket - equipped with even more sophisticated measuring equipment capable of reading the infrared spectrum - was poised to rise in a northerly arc toward Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in the Beaufort Sea.
After reaching an altitude of 248 miles, a parachute would carry it to the northern tundra in a nine-minute flight.
If auroral conditions were not suitable, researchers planned to continue daily to attempt a successful rocket launch for up to three weeks.
This is the third three-week attempt to launch the rocket. Earlier attempts were called off for different reasons - commercial aircraft, deteriorating weather and a drop in auroral activity.
The research has a practical purpose in that the same environmental conditions that cause the aurora can also disrupt communications and cause power failures.