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Release: Jan. 18, 2002

Photo: Craig Kletzing, project principal investigator and associate professor in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences department of physics and astronomy.

UI Researchers Launch Rocket To Study Northern Lights

University of Iowa researchers plan to travel to Alaska in early February to launch a sub-orbital sounding rocket designed to study the northern lights.

Craig Kletzing, project principal investigator and associate professor in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences department of physics and astronomy, says that the rocket launch for the Rocket Auroral Correlator Experiment (RACE) will take place at Poker Flat Research Range -- about 30 miles north of Fairbanks -- during active auroral conditions.

"The rocket will fly more than 500 miles into space to obtain measurements that will help researchers to understand the interactions between waves and particles in the aurora, and how energy is exchanged between electric fields and electrons in the upper ionosphere," Kletzing says. "A key part of the process that researchers are investigating involves electrons which 'surf' on electric field waves. The goal is to understand exactly which parts of the waves are used by the 'surfers' — the electrons.

"A unique aspect of this experiment is the rocket's payload. The instruments in the payload have been custom-designed to take measurements much faster than similar instruments used in the past. This new technology is part of an ambitious attempt to develop new techniques for measuring wave-particle correlation," he says.

The project, being conducted during a period of a solar maximum within an 11-year solar cycle, is a cooperative venture between NASA, the UI and Dartmouth College. NASA is providing the rocket, while the UI has built the experimental instruments, with the support of about $410,000 in NASA funds. Kletzing's colleagues include Jim LaBelle, co-investigator and associate professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, and UI instrument collaborators Scott Bounds, UI assistant research scientist, and Jason Martin-Hiner, UI graduate research assistant.

The February 2002 UI rocket launch is the latest chapter in a long line of distinguished University of Iowa research into the nature of the northern lights. In December 2001, Kletzing and a research team, led by UI researchers Robert Mutel and Donald Gurnett, reported finding a novel way to remotely pinpoint the source of Earth's most intense, naturally occurring radio noise. They showed the radio noise, called auroral kilometric radiation (AKR), being emitted along magnetic field lines about 3,000 miles above bright regions in the Earth's northern lights.

Also, in 2000, UI researcher Jack Scudder and an international team of physicists advanced mankind's understanding of the northern lights and related phenomena by making the first direct observations of the switch that permits energy to be transferred between the solar wind and Earth. Additionally, in 1986, UI researcher Louis Frank and his colleagues used NASA's Dynamics Explorer 1 spacecraft to capture the first images of the complete ring of the northern lights.