NASA and the Aurora Borealis (INCAA)

aurora borealis1

Ion-Neutral Coupling during Active Aurora (Borealis)

What does this mean, and why is it exciting? As some may know, we named our daughter Aurora. No, not because of Sleeping Beauty, but we don’t mind the correlation. When my wife and I were dating we had the cute couple conversation of if we had names picked out when we were ready to have kids. My name I had picked out for a girl was Aurora, after the Aurora Borealis, because it is the most beautiful phenomena in the known universe, until I have my daughter. Boom, case closed, name was selected.

Now, lurking through the interwebs, the James Webb Space Telescope has gotten all the hype. Rightfully so. The most powerful telescope in human history. Pretty amazing feat sending it (beyond reachable human repair, approximately 1M miles from Earth) and having it completely unfold with no known errors. Extremely impressive. Then there’s Artemis. Which has been receiving special praise. NASA built out a method in which people can submit their names and birthdates to be stored onto a flash drive and fly to the moon while the experiments are being performed. As a token of user data submission, you receive your very own “boarding pass.”

boarding pass Michael anon
Artemis Boarding Pass

Among all these hyped missions, NASA has launched a few new experiments in our own backyard (dare I say, under the radar?). The INCAA, or Ion-Neutral Coupling during active Aurora mission. The defined parameters of the mission is sending two rockets, or “research payloads,” from Poker Flat, Alaska up and through the ongoing Aurora Borealis. The first payload will emit vapor tracers into the Borealis to watch how it moves. Similar to using iodine or dyes to determine how things flow. The second payload will be collecting temperature and density of plasma in and around the Borealis.

Why is this so important or interesting you ask? Let’s first break down some basics about our atmosphere. The lowest layer, the Troposphere (where we live) we have abundant breathable elements (oxygen/nitrogen). Within this area is referred to as the neutral gas atmosphere. Above our heads, into the Stratosphere is where these breathable elements become a much different story. The air is full of unfiltered Ultraviolet rays, electrons are pulled from atoms, and take on a positive charge. The previously neutral gas mutates into an electrically reactive state of matter, called “plasma.”

As a nerd, this is extremely interesting. But at the core, what does this study mean for all of us. Basically, what’s the point? Well, by studying this level of atmosphere and the Auroras, scientists will gain much more valuable information about how the plasma and neutral gas mix between atmosphere levels. In turn, this could help give a more clear understanding of one of the numerous variables in Earth’s climate and weather.

When finding this story and reading more about the experiment, I stumbled across Citizen Science. Think of Bill Nye the Science Guy, but it’s just your neighbor in the backyard with his kids inflatable pool flipped over his telescope to blot out light pollution. Well, that’s a bit of an extreme analogy, but it seems fitting. Given these citizen scientists can have pretty impressive setups. I was able to stumble upon, Aurorasaurus! This site is so cool! Its tagline reads, “reporting Auroras from the ground up.” They have a pretty significant following and have integrated social media to get everyone in on the conversation. Maybe I’m late to the party on this, but it is a fantastic resource!

NASA is working on some truly remarkable science, and I hope they are able to maintain this trajectory. Pun fully intended and non-apologetic. I am excited to see what The James Webb Telescope will be able to tell us about our universe and what they have deemed, “looking into the past.”


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