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VISIONS: Seeing the Aurora in a New Light

This image shows a beautiful auroral display over Bear Lake, Alaska in 2005.

 

NASA's VISIONS sounding rocket mission (VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm) is studying what makes the aurora, and how it affects Earth’s atmosphere. It will launch from Poker Flats, Alaska, on a night with a strong aurora between Feb 2. and Feb 17, 2013.

 

VISIONS will determine how the aurora heats and "slingshots" oxygen out of the upper atmosphere. We know from other satellite missions that near-Earth space often gets disturbed by the "auroral wind", which is this flow of oxygen from the upper atmosphere out to and beyond geosynchronous orbit. While this wind is not very dense (only one ten billionth the pressure at Earth's surface) it has important effects on the space environment. In particular, it is one factor that helps to control the behavior of the Van Allen radiation belts, which can damage satellites.

 

We know this wind is strongest when the aurora is active, but we don't yet know how much oxygen gets lifted out of our atmosphere, how long it takes, at what altitude the wind blows strongest, or what parts of the aurora are most efficient at driving it.

 

VISIONS will fly through and above the aurora, and into the region where this auroral wind is generated, up to 500 miles altitude, in order to explore how the aurora drives this important space weather process.

 

Credit: Joshua Strang/USAF

 

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To read more about the VISIONS mission go to: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/visions-aurora.html

 

VISIONS: Seeing the Aurora in a New Light

 

A team of NASA scientists arrived in Poker Flats, Alaska at the end of January, 2013. The team is patiently waiting for the exotic red and green glow of an aurora to illuminate the sky. Instead of simply admiring the view, this group from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center of Greenbelt, Md., and The Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, Calif. will launch a sounding rocket up through the Northern Lights. The rocket could launch as early as the night of Feb. 2, 2013, but the team has a two-week window in order to find the perfect launch conditions.

 

Armed with a series of instruments developed specifically for this mission, the VISIONS (VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm) rocket will soar high through the arctic sky to study the auroral wind, which is a strong but intermittent stream of oxygen atoms from Earth’s atmosphere into outer space. The rocket will survive only fifteen minutes before splashing down in the Arctic Ocean, but the information it obtains will provide answers to some long-standing questions.

 

VISIONS is studying how oxygen atoms leave Earth’s atmosphere under the influence of the aurora. Most of the atmosphere is bound by Earth’s gravity, but a small portion of it gets heated enough by the aurora that it can break free, flowing outwards until it reaches near-Earth space. The atoms that form this wind initially travel at about 300 miles per hour -- only one percent of the speed needed to overcome gravity and leave Earth's atmosphere.

 

The principal investigator for VISIONS, Goddard's Doug Rowland is providing images while the team prepares for launch.

 

VISIONS is a partnership between NASA Goddard and the Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, Calif. The sounding rocket motors and payload support systems are provided by NASA Wallops Flight Facility, including NSROC, the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. The Poker Flat Research Range is operated by the University of Alaska under contract to NASA.

 

NASA image use policy.

 

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific

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Taken on January 19, 2005