This post is about the two rocket launch ranges in Alaska, and how they get the rockets into space in the mid of winter to explore the aurora. It also provides some insider travel tips related to learn more on side, i.e. at the launch facilities, and to have your photo taken side-by-side with a rocket. You will probably get a lots of likes on Instagram posting it.
- Alaska’s Rocket Ranges
- Engineers Work on the Rocket Launch Ranges at Double Digit Negative Temperatures
- Why Are There Rocket Launch Ranges in Alaska?
- Rockets Serve to Deploy Instruments into the Upper Atmosphere
- A Rocket on Campus
- Peak Research Launch Season Is during Winter
- Launches Can Occur during Launch Windows
- Ground Support Is Key for any Launch
Alaska’s Rocket Ranges
Rockets immediately bring Cape Canaveral, White Sands or Baikonur Cosmodrome into mind, but not Alaska. Even many Alaskans do not know that Alaska has two rocket ranges. One in Kodiak, and one at Poker Flat. The latter is even the only university-owned rocket launching facility. At Poker Flat, launches are made typically in winter on clear nights that allow seeing the dancing aurora. The rockets are aiming at the aurora to perform measurements therein.
Wondering why scientists are interested in the aurora? Various reasons. Planets with green aurora have oxygen, but foremost, communication. Interestingly, WWII and radio-wave communication initiated the aurora research in Alaska. See the post at the link for more information on the historical background of the aurora research in Alaska.
Engineers Work on the Rocket Launch Ranges at Double Digit Negative Temperatures
If you have ever watched a space-shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral, you remember how busy engineers, and personnel work to get the start going. Now imagine this scenario in the middle of Alaska, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, at sub-zero temperatures. Everything you touch with bare hands, freezes to your hands. Thus, the engineers and personnel have to bundle up in down parkas and down pants. This scenario does not sound very practical. Does it?
Why Are There Rocket Launch Ranges in Alaska?
To explore the aurora, this is the best place to launch the rocket. You see what you aim at, and the rocket stages will not harm anybody as the rockets go out north towards the Arctic Ocean covered by sea-ice.
Ok. That explains Poker Flat. But, what about Kodiak? Kodiak is a commercial rocket launch facility. It is operated by the Alaska Aerospace Corporation for sub-orbital and orbital space launches. This site has also the advantage of vast ocean in the vicinity and permits desirable orbits because of its location far north.
Rockets Serve to deploy instruments into the upper atmosphere
At the Alaska space 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. Read more on the Aurora borealis.
The rockets serve to reach the height where the instruments are deployed. The research instruments send their data records and position down to a receiver at the site.
A Rocket on Campus
When you want to see a real rocket you don’t need to be lucky to be in Fairbanks during a rocket launch or during the Golden Days when a real rocket is in the parade.
Fairbanks visitors have the opportunity to pose in front of a rocket on campus. This rocket is an example of the type of rockets launched at the Poker Flat Research Range. As you can see these kind of rockets 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.
During the summer tourist season, visitors can tour the Poker Flat Research Range, and see the launch places, the hangars where the mission-control team prepares the rockets, and keeps them warm so the fuel would not freeze. The range and hangars also hold 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.
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. In addition, among other things, the winds in the atmosphere must come from a certain direction to ensure that the various rocket stages would not fall on habitated land. Furthermore, no aircraft can use the space in the path of the rocket for safety reasons. This means, when an emergency helicopter or plane has to bring a patience to a hospital the flight has priority over the launch.
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.
Summary on Rocket Launch Ranges in Alaska
Alaska has one science and one research/commercial related launch space port at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Poker Flat Research Facility and in Kodiak, respectively. Tourists can visit the Poker Flat Range during summer. See the Geophysical Insitute’s webpage for times. You can sign up for their twitter account to learn about launches. Ant visitor can take their selfie with a real rocket on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
Photos: G. Kramm
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