Wednesday, December 5, 2018
Launching Rockets from the Top of the World - UNIVERSE
Over the next 14 months, NASA scientists will join a group of international researchers to explore a special region — Earth’s northern polar cusp, one of just two places on our planet where particles from the Sun have direct access to our atmosphere.
What is the polar cusp?
Earth is surrounded by a giant magnetic bubble known as a magnetosphere, created by the churning of liquid iron in our planet’s outer core. Our magnetosphere protects us from many of the most dangerous denizens of the space environment, including the hot, electrically charged stream of particles known as the solar wind. Fortunately, our magnetic bubble keeps most of these solar wind particles at bay — but not all.
The polar cusps are essentially two holes in our magnetosphere. Here, Earth’s magnetic field lines funnel the solar wind downwards, concentrating its energy before injecting it into Earth’s atmosphere, where it mixes and collides with particles of Earthly origin.
The cusp stays positioned at local noon — wherever the Sun is directly overhead. As Earth turns, particles are funneled into different regions of the atmosphere like a tube of icing squirted onto a rotating cake. Once a day, the cusp passes right above Andøya Space Center and Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard rocket ranges in Northern Norway — where the Grand Challenge participants begin their investigations.
From these rocket ranges, the scientists of the Grand Challenge will fly sounding rockets — sub-orbital rockets that shoot up into space for a few minutes before falling back to Earth. Sounding rockets can access Earth’s atmosphere between 30 and 800 miles above the surface, the lower end of which is too high for scientific balloons and too low for satellites. Cheaper and faster to develop than large satellite missions, sounding rockets often carry the latest scientific instruments on their first-ever flights, allowing for unmatched speed in the turnaround from design to implementation.
Several mysteries of physics lurk within the cusp. Using cutting edge scientific tools, the participants in this Grand Challenge will chart new territory in exploring them.