Nasa rockets, satellite team up to study 'Earth-sized electric generator'
- The two rockets, scheduled to be launched on separate days, will team up with Nasa’s ICON satellite to advance our understanding of the atmospheric dynamo, said the US space agency.
Two sounding rockets will be launched this month under Nasa’s Dynamo-2 mission to team up with a satellite to study the giant electric current in Earth’s ionosphere. The two rockets, scheduled to be launched on separate days, will team up with Nasa’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite to advance our understanding of the atmospheric dynamo, said the US space agency.
About 80,000 metres above the Earth surface, where the atmosphere blends into space, a pattern of electrical current swirls in continent-sized circuits forming an Earth-sized electric generator. The giant electrical current migrates across the planet in the ionosphere wherever the Sun is directly overhead. In the ionosphere, the Sun's intense radiation separates electrons from their atoms, allowing electricity to flow.
While most measurements of the dynamo come from magnetometers, a device on the ground that monitors the way current disturbs Earth’s magnetic field, taking measurements from inside the ionosphere will provide more detail about the phenomenon. Earth’s ionosphere is the dynamic region high in the atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather from above.
Scott England, a space physicist and collaborator for the upcoming Dynamo-2 campaign, said that the measure from inside the ionosphere is a “really tricky part” because the air is much too thin for an aircraft and too dense to fly most spacecraft. “So one way of making these measurements is to fly a rocket through it,” England added.
One sounding rocket will launch into “quiet” conditions, while the other will launch into “disturbed” conditions, on two separate days. The launches will be timed so that the ICON satellite, designed to investigate changes in the ionosphere of Earth, will be passing over at the same time to compare data.
The sounding rockets will make brief measurements in space before falling back to Earth a few minutes later.
“While ground-based methods can provide large-scale, integrated measurements, sounding rockets give us local, fine-scale data on the ionospheric current,” said Takumi Abe, a space physicist at JAXA and collaborator for the Dynamo missions.
The Dynamo-2 rockets will launch from Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia on separate days between July 6-20.