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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an alien! No, it's just NASA doing some cool experiments. Or, are they? Recently both the public and internet were set ablaze by the mysterious lights that appeared over the Arctic Circle. Beautiful but terrifying if taken out of context, the stunning light show appeared in the evening of April 5.
Now, if you were part of the group who saw the 15+ lights you may have thought an Independence Day-like invasion was imminent. Even more so the blue cloud looked impressive among the backdrop of the Northern Lights. However, all the spectacle was part of a march larger mission called AZURE which is part of the Grand Challenge Initiative at NASA.
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Featuring a host of scientists from Norway, Japan, and Canada, as well as other countries the researchers want to investigate the physics of heating and charged particle precipitation in the arctic region called the geomagnetic cusp. Yet, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Today we are not only going to explore these stunning clouds and their culprit the AZURE mission but take a quick dive into the Grand Challenge Initiative and the beautiful science behind the Northern Lights.
Understanding the Northern Lights
Considered one of the wonders of the world, auroras are beautiful light shows that appear in the night sky, commonly found in both the North (aurora borealis) and South Poles (aurora australis) of our planet.
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Auroras are formed when charged particles emitted from the sun during a solar flare penetrate the earth’s magnetic shield and collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. These collisions result in countless little bursts of light.
Studying the Northern Lights give researchers insight into a host of fields including the understanding of the physics of explosive energy instabilities in space.
The AZURE Mission Will Help Researchers Better Understand the Auroras
This is where the Azure Mission comes in. The geomagnetic region where the Northern Lights appear is one of the few places on earth with easy access to the electrically charged solar wind that pervades the solar system.
Just this past April, NASA launched two rockets carrying scientific instruments for studying the energy exchange within an aurora. As described by NASA, the AZURE mission aims to make measurements of the atmospheric density and temperature with instruments on the rockets deploying visible “gas tracers”.
Released over the Norwegian Sea at 71 through 150 miles altitude, these substances ionize when exposed to sunlight. It has been said that these substances are similar to the same stuff found in fireworks, creating colorful displays.
The colorful light blue clouds appeared in the Arctic were caused by these substances. Now the clouds themselves are not just up there for fun hanging out. Using a combination of ground-based photography and tracking instruments, researchers will follow the clouds with the aims of gaining insight into the flow of neutral and charged particles with the auroral wind.
However, the project of AZURE does not end or begin here. The AZURE mission is one of nine missions that is, as mentioned above, part of the Grand Challenge Initiative of International missions taking place between 2018-2020.
So, in short, no aliens...yet.
Understanding the Grand Challenge Initiative and What Has It Accomplished so Far
The collision of the Sun’s particles that create the Northern Lights is a violent event. NASA wants to “understanding the contribution that auroras make to the total amount of energy that enters and leaves Earth’s geospace system”. Data garnered from the auroras could shed light on the “processes that drive near-Earth space.”
This area is where a host of the instruments and tools used for everyday communication. Unlike the Azure mission that focused on understanding the flow of particles in the ionosphere, the other previous missions TRICE-2, VISIONS-2 in December and G-CHASER and CAPER-2 in January, part of the Grand Challenge Initiative shared different goals.
For example, the TRICE-2 mission over the Norwegian Sea helped scientists shed light on the electrodynamics of the polar cusp, while the VISIONS 2 mission gave researchers a better look at the process of Earth’s atmosphere escaping into space.
Nevertheless, as they are all missions that are all part of the Grand Challenge Initiative, they all share a singular overarching goal. As described by the Andoya Space Center in Norway, “GCI is a large-scale international collaboration effort targeting advancement in specific, fundamental issues in space and earth science”
Centering around the Arctic, the GCI projects aim to shed light on the complex physics that make up the atmosphere in the geomagnetic region. What happens when those violent particles crash into our atmosphere, still puzzles researchers. This three-year initiative could provide a lot of answers.