This winter, NASA’s scientists and engineers traveled to the world’s northernmost civilian town to launch rockets equipped with cutting-edge scientific instruments.

This is the beginning of a 14-month-long campaign to study a particular region of Earth’s magnetic field — which means launching near the poles. What’s it like to launch a science rocket in these extreme conditions?

Our planet is protected by a natural magnetic field that deflects most of the particles that flow out from the Sun — the solar wind — away from our atmosphere. But near the north and south poles, two oddities in Earth’s magnetic field funnel these solar particles directly into our atmosphere. These regions are the polar cusps, and it turns out they’re the ideal spot for studying how our atmosphere interacts with space.

The scientists of the Grand Challenge Initiative — Cusp are using sounding rockets to do their research. Sounding rockets are suborbital rockets that launch to a few hundred miles in altitude, spending a few minutes in space before falling back to Earth. That means sounding rockets can carry sensitive instruments above our atmosphere to study the Sun, other stars and even distant galaxies.

They also fly directly through some of the most interesting regions of Earth’s atmosphere, and that’s what scientists are taking advantage of for their Grand Challenge experiments. 

One of the ideal rocket ranges for cusp science is in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, off the coast of Norway and within the Arctic circle. Because of its far northward position, each morning Svalbard passes directly under Earth’s magnetic cusp.

But launching in this extreme, remote environment puts another set of challenges on the mission teams. These launches need to happen during the winter, when Svalbard experiences 24/7 darkness because of Earth’s axial tilt. The launch teams can go months without seeing the Sun. 

Like for all rocket launches, the science teams have to wait for the right weather conditions to launch. Because they’re studying upper atmospheric processes, some of these teams also have to wait for other science conditions, like active auroras. Auroras are created when charged particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere — often triggered by solar storms or changes in the solar wind — and they’re related to many of the upper-atmospheric processes that scientists want to study near the magnetic cusp.

When all is finally ready, an alarm sounds throughout the town of Ny-Ålesund to alert residents to the impending launch. And then it’s up, up and away! This photo shows the launch of the twin VISIONS-2 sounding rockets on Dec. 7, 2018 from Ny-Ålesund.

These rockets are designed to break up during flight — so after launch comes clean-up. The launch teams track where debris lands so that they can retrieve the pieces later. 

The next launch of the Grand Challenge Initiative is AZURE, launching from Andøya Space Center in Norway in March 2019.

For updates on the Grand Challenge Initiative and other sounding rocket flights, visit nasa.gov/soundingrockets

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