A NASA-funded GREECE mission sounding rocket, launches into an aurora in the early morning of March 3, 2014, over Venetie, Alaska. It will study how certain structures – classic curls like swirls of cream in coffee — form in the aurora. NASA/Christopher Perry
On March 3, 2014, at 6:09 a.m. EST, a NASA-funded sounding rocket launched straight into an aurora over Venetie, Alaska. The Ground-to-Rocket Electrodynamics – Electron Correlative Experiment, or GREECE, sounding rocket mission, which launched from Poker Flat Research Range in Poker Flat, Alaska, will study classic curls in the aurora in the night sky.
The GREECE instruments travel on a sounding rocket that launches for a ten-minute ride right through the heart of the aurora reaching its zenith over the native village of Venetie, Alaska. To study the curl structures, GREECE consists of two parts: ground-based imagers located in Venetie to track the aurora from the ground and the rocket to take measurements from the middle of the aurora itself.
At their simplest, auroras are caused when particles from the sun funnel over to Earth’s night side, generate electric currents, and trigger a shower of particles that strike oxygen and nitrogen some 60 to 200 miles up in Earth’s atmosphere, releasing a flash of light. But the details are always more complicated, of course. Researchers wish to understand the aurora, and movement of plasma in general, at much smaller scales including such things as how different structures are formed there. This is a piece of information, which in turn, helps paint a picture of the sun-Earth connection and how energy and particles from the sun interact with Earth’s own magnetic system, the magnetosphere.
GREECE is a collaborative effort between SWRI, which developed particle instruments and the ground-based imaging, and the University of California, Berkeley, measuring the electric and magnetic fields. The launch is supported by a sounding rocket team from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va. The Poker Flat Research Range is operated by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
“The conditions were optimal,” said Marilia Samara, principal investigator for the mission at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “We can’t wait to dig into the data.”