Kinet-X experiment: NASA launches rocket to find answers from the aurora

NASA launched one of its largest sounding rockets Sunday from a space facility on the East Coast, an experiment led by a professor of space physics at the Fairbanks Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska. The four-stage Black Brant XII rocket, carrying principal investigator Peter Delamere's Kinet-X experiment, lifted off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 8:44 p.m. Eastern time.

The rocket was launched over the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda on the east coast and flew in an arc into the ionosphere. The experiment aims to understand how massive plasmas like the solar wind interact at the particle level with plasmas like those in the Earth's space environment.

The interaction between the solar wind and the planet's magnetosphere takes the form of auroras, whether on Earth or on another planet with a magnetic field and lots of atmosphere. Physicists have long been trying to understand how this interaction works.

After liftoff, the rocket would release two canisters of barium thermite in a designated area and then detonate them -- one at an altitude of about 249 miles, and one 90 seconds later in a downward orbit, about 186 miles, near Bermuda in the North Atlantic. The explosion created purple and green clouds.

The barium spreads out of the jar and turns into plasma when exposed to sunlight. The barium plasma cloud, which generates its own electromagnetic fields and waves, then interacts with the existing plasma in the ionosphere. The experiment's scientific team has already started analyzing data from this interaction.

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The launch came on the last day of the 10-day launch window. The previous few days have been plagued by bad weather at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Bermuda, unacceptably high winds at high altitudes, and an incident in which the rocket "came into contact with a launcher mount during launch preparations," according to NASA.

The experiment involved three other space and plasma scientists from the Institute of Geophysics. Co-investigator Don Hampton, a research associate professor at the Institute of Geophysics, made observations from the ground in Bermuda; Institute of Geophysics researcher Mark Conde, professor of space physics, and Antonius Otto, professor emeritus of plasma physics, are monitoring the experiment at Fairbanks.

The experiment also included researchers and equipment from Dartmouth University, the University of New Hampshire, Clemson University, the University of Maryland, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.