Finally found an interesting airspace NOTAM

On all my flights, the NOTAMS I retrieve have mentioned spots of ice on the Fairbanks runways/taxiways, certain airport lights being out, and other items I know are important, but are really mundane. Finally though, I have an exciting NOTAM:

NOTAM - flight restriction over Poker Flat
NOTAM – flight restriction over the University of Alaska’s Poker Flat Rocket Range

This rocket is being launched to take in-situ aurora measurements; in-situ aurora data is a big deal to space physicists because the aurora occurs around 100km (~62mi) above the ground. It’s a region above where we can fly instruments on planes. The atmosphere there is too thick to place a satellite in a [cost-effective, ‘long-term’] orbit. We mostly rely on remote sensing to learn about aurora, but there are limitations on the type of data that can be obtained. The solution: rockets. But they’re so expensive, basically a one-time-use machine, and they only fly for ~10 minutes (remember not all 10 minutes is spent at the right altitude…). And you only get good data when you time the launch properly. Think of aurora as ‘storms’ in the atmosphere. They take time to grow and light up the sky. The rocket takes time to get to the correct altitude, so to observe the aurora at maximum intensity, you need to launch at the early, wispy green glow stages (but in the early stages, there is no guarantee that it will turn into the large event you want). So much stress in the control room!!!

Scientists don’t currently have a guaranteed aurora forecaster (a mildly accurate one is at http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast), but the hope is that with more data, we can someday have very accurate predictive capabilities. More details at http://uafcornerstone.net/rockets-set-launch-poker-flat-research-range/ and www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/nasa-funded-sounding-rocket-to-catch-aurora-in-the-act/

Having friends that work at Poker Flat is awesome. We get to go through the gates to observe the launch up close (~2 miles away).

On the 25th, auroras were mild:

I'm definitely enjoying the warm temperature aurora watching - 20F's! A bit too warm though so the ground is now a sheet of ice...
I’m definitely enjoying warm temperature aurora watching: 20F’s! A bit too warm though so the parking lot is now a large solid sheet of ice…

Auroras were too mild for a launch of the official rocket – but personnel were kept mentally sharp with two smaller test rocket launches. Total flight time is only about 40 seconds. Oddly thrilling hearing the loud ‘thud’ as it lands.

One of two test rocket launches of the night - Poker Flat
One of two test rocket launches of the night – Poker Flat. Courtesy T. Xiao

The highway bordering the rocket range needs to be shut down for ~10 minutes for every launch and I’m curious if anything is said about the launch to pilots in the area.

Even though I’ve finished my required night flight training hours, I kinda of want to schedule a night flight to see how rockets affect air traffic communications/instructions 😀

Auroral activity has been low so we’re still waiting for the launch as of today.

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