How did NASA create its own pretty artificial auroras? Rockets, of course.

These artificial auroras are arguably as beautiful as the real thing.
These artificial auroras are arguably as beautiful as the real thing.

Image: NASA/Lee Wingfield

Painting the sky with your own aurora is as easy as launching a NASA rocket into the Norwegian night.

The space agency orchestrated its own version of the light phenomena on Friday in order to understand the amount of energy auroras generate within Earth’s upper atmosphere and beyond.

NASA launched two sounding rockets from Norway’s Andøya Space Center, to generate artificial auroras against the backdrop of a real aurora. And it looks pretty magical:

The process is (somewhat uncomfortably) known as “auroral forcing,” and is the main focus of the NASA-funded Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment (AZURE). 

The project will see eight rocket missions launch over the next two years from Norway’s Andøya and Svalbard rocket ranges. 

“The more we learn about auroras, the more we understand about the fundamental processes that drive near-Earth space — a region that is increasingly part of the human domain, home not only to astronauts but also communications and GPS signals that can affect those of us on the ground on a daily basis,” NASA’s blog post reads.

The sounding rockets, launched two minutes apart and reaching an altitude of 320 kilometres (198 miles) took measurements of the atmospheric density and temperature.

When the timing was just right, deployed both trimethyl aluminum (TMA) and a barium/strontium mixture, which ionises when exposed to sunlight.

These colourful clouds work as tracers, so researchers can study the vertical winds in the region — these winds create what NASA refers to as a “particle soup” that redistributes the atmosphere’s energy, chemical constituents, and momentum.

NASA said the chemicals released “pose no hazard to residents in the region.”

Pretty spectacular.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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