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Space weather rocket standing by for launch

Scientists hope to meet the Jan. 25 launch deadline

Jan. 19, 1999: A NASA rocket is poised to blast off from Norway to study space weather high above the Arctic circle. CAPER, the Cleft Accelerated Plasma Experimental Rocket, will carry one of the most complex instrument packages ever launched into the region where the Earth's atmosphere is directly exposed to space. The mission has been in development for more than three years. Now scientists are waiting expectantly to send CAPER aloft before the launch window closes on Jan. 25.

Geomagnetic activity and viewing conditions at Longyearbyen tracking station were favorable yesterday, but high winds at Andoya Rocket Range again kept CAPER on the ground. Earthly weather has held CAPER on the ground in Norway since it was readied a week ago.

Right: The camera freezes snow in midair as an Andoya scientist prepares to launch a weather balloon that will tell if conditions aloft are safe to launch the rocket. More photos and current status reports are available at the Andoya Rocket Range. (All photos: Andoya Rocket Range)

Related Story:
Scientists plan Arctic CAPER to study space weather

"The weather [at the tracking station at Longyearbyen] has become challenging with high winds and fresh snow producing snow drifts that slowly snake across the valley like mute ghosts condemned to wander eternally," Dr. Paul Kintner of Cornell University, CAPER's principal investigator, wrote on Saturday.

Left: An artist's concept depicts the planned trajectory of CAPER from Andoya, Norway, to the polar ice cap. Links to 984x768-pixel, 72K JPG. More photos and current status reports are available at the Andoya Rocket Range. (All photos: Andoya Rocket Range)

"Both of our 4-wheel drive vehicles were stuck in the snow during our trip to the station. One still remains stuck as the [launch] window closes.... Visibility is zero within a few meters of the ground and during the drive out to the Nordlysstajonen occasionally the road could only be seen by opening the car door and looking down."

Although CAPER has been ready since Jan. 11, launch has been postponed each evening because the right science conditions were not available, or because of weather. The CAPER team is anxious to start the countdown and then launch over an aurora arc. Data from instruments on the ground and on the Polar satellite are used to determine when conditions are right. When CAPER finally takes off it will soar to an apex of about 1,400 km (828 mi) in its 25-minute flight.

"We're studying a region that is believed to provide the majority of the mass that makes up the magnetosphere," said Victoria Coffey, a scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Coffey is the experiment scientist for two CAPER instruments, TECHS (the Thermal Electron Capped Hemisphere Spectrometer) and TICHS (the Thermal Ion Capped Hemisphere Spectrometer).

An initial study was made by SCIFER - the Sounding of the Cleft Ion Fountain Energization Region - on Jan. 25, 1995. It showed that plasmas (electrified gases) are accelerated to energies of a few hundred electron volts in a few well-defined regions of the cleft or cusp.

 
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However, the Earth is exposed to space at the north and south magnetic poles where the magnetic field lines are open to space because of their dipole (two-pole) shape.

Left: A keogram depicts auroral conditions over the Longyearbyen tracking station north of Andoya. Keograms take strip images of the aurora, as seen by all-sky cameras, and stack them side-by-side to depict changes over time (left to right). Keogram is derived from keoitt, old Eskimo for aurora. Links to 640x480-pixel, 101K GIF.

"It's the only place where solar wind particles can directly enter Earth's ionosphere," Coffey explained.

Be sure to read Plasma scientists plan polar CAPER to study auroral ion fountain (Jan. 7).

An old Nike Cajun sound rocket stands guard at the main complex at Andoya.

 

Web Links

Solar wind blows some of Earth's atmosphere into space. Dec. 8, 1998. Polar spacecraft measures "auroral fountain" flowing out as solar wind flows in.
Earth weaves its own invisible cloak. Dec. 9, 1997.Polar fountains fill magnetosphere with ions.
Plasmas can't hide from neutralized TIDE. Nov. 20, 1996.
SCIFER's 1995 flight set the stage for CAPER.
SpaceWeather.com daily forecasts of solar activity and current geomagnetic conditions.

External link: Andoya Rocket Range news and information

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Author: Dave Dooling
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: John M. Horack