Rockets serve to deploy instruments into the upper atmosphere
In a previous post of the Focus Alaska series, I already wrote about Alaska’s two space ports. At these facilities, rockets are launched for scientific as well as commercial purposes. While the Kodiak facilities serves for both, the university owned Poker Flat Research Range serves exclusively research. Most of these launches explore the upper atmosphere. Many things we know today about the aurora, the atmospheric composition at high altitudes, and the turbulence up there are due to these launches.
The rockets serve as the transport medium to reach the height where the instruments are deployed. They send their data records and position down to a receiver at the site.
Let your friends know about rockets in Alaska by tweeting them have a look at this Alaska rocket post!
A rocket on campus
The rocket in the outfit photos shows an example of the type of rockets launched at the Poker Flat Research Range. As you can see these kind of rockets have use two or more stages. Each of the stages contains its own engine and propellant. At the bottom, you see the first stage. It is typically the largest. The second (and subsequent upper stages) are on top of the first stage and typically decrease in size. When a booster has burned all its fuel, it detaches from the rocket and falls off. The next stage from the bottom starts to fire and pushes the remaining rocket further up into the atmosphere.
At the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, visitors have the opportunity to pose in front of a rocket as I do in the outfit photo. During the summer tourist season, visitors can tour the Poker Flat Research Range and see the launch places, the hangars where the rockets are prepared and kept warm so the fuel would not freeze, and many other research related equipment. For instance, visitors may see the big water pool in which research on oil spills in sea-ice covered water is performed during winter.
Peak research launch season is during winter
Since most launches serve to explore the aurora, they occur during winter. Note that despite the aurora also occurs in summer, one can’t see the aurora during the 24/7 daylight of the Alaska summer. Since the aurora can only be seen when clouds do not cover the view, and the geophysical conditions have to be the one to be researched too, launches have a launch window.
Launches can occur during launch windows
Typically, launch windows are a couple of days or weeks long. During the launch window, a rocket can be launched at any time when the geophysical conditions promise to be those which the research mission requires, and in addition, among other things, the winds in the atmosphere ensure that the various rocket stages would not fall on habitated land, and no aircraft uses the space in the path of the rocket.
Ground support is key for any launch
This means that all launches are supported by lidar, radar and radiosonde measurements, among other things. Given all the logistics from readiness of the rocket itself, the engineers, scientists, weather, air space, and the geophysical conditions to be examined by the to be deployed instruments, it is obvious that to predict the exact launch time is close to impossible.
Nevertheless, during times of launch windows, interested people in the Fairbanks metropolitan area stay up thru the night and follow the Geophysical Institute’s Poker Flat Research Range twitter account waiting for the news that a launch is a go. Then they drive out to the top of a mountain outside of Fairbanks from where they can watch the launch. Since Alaska is not Florida, they have to sit bundled up in winter gear in their idling cars while the car’s heating is running.
Would you stay up all night for a chance to see a rocket launch at 40 below?
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Photos: G. Kramm (2016)
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