Aurora Borealis Rocket Launch Means Cash for Alaskan Native Villagers


Alaska residents in the mainly Native town of Venetie have been offered $1,200 for information leading to a piece of fallen rocket and $500 for nose cones, doors, payloads and other, relatively smaller, rocket parts.

The village, whose residents are mostly Gwich'in Athabaskan, abuts the Poker Flat Research Range, from which NASA launched a rocket into the aurora borealis on February 18 to study the physics of these dancing lights. Although its underlying purpose was to learn more about how solar flares might affect GPS systems and satellites, the launch itself proved breathtaking as the rocket took off, then a piece detached and fell back to Earth.

It’s pieces of that and other rockets, from previous missions, that NASA hopes to collect as part of its Clean Range Policy, begun in 2011, the Alaska Dispatch reported. NASA will pay $1,200 for information helping scientists to locate previously unreported rocket motors and $500 for nose cones, doors, payloads and other rocket pieces.

Dozens of these items are strewn around the partly burned-out forest that surrounds Venetie, the Dispatch said, making the burnt-out rocket motors and other debris difficult to spot.

“The end of a burned tree stump, that’s what it looks like from above,” said NASA researcher Josh Bundick to a group of villagers in a meeting between the residents and officials from NASA, the Poker Flat Research Range and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the Dispatch. “Looking for these rocket parts is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

The rocket’s instruments helped researchers study the effects on the upper atmosphere of a certain type of electromagnetic energy, said. The scientific team comprises 60 researchers—scientists and students—from Cornell University, the University of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College, Southwest Research Institute, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Oslo.

It took just 10 minutes and 25 seconds for the rocket to reach 200 miles and then come back down, transmitting data all the way.

“We got a CD of data in our pockets the same night,” lead researcher Steve Powell of Cornell University told the Dispatch. The results will help grad students at the universities with their doctoral research, which entails modeling Earth’s upper atmosphere to learn more about how space weather affects satellite communications, the Dispatch said.

Below, a video of what we know so far about the Northern Lights, courtesy of NASA.