What Caused These Marvelous Alien-Like Lights Dancing Above Norway?

Colorful clouds formed by the release of vapors from the two AZURE rockets allow scientist to measure auroral winds. NASA/Lee Wingfield

What looks like extraterrestrial beings darting through the night sky is actually the result of two NASA rockets deployed to the upper atmosphere from the Andøya Space Center in Norway in order to research auroras under the Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment (AZURE) mission.

Let’s be real: the results are amazing.

A time-lapse of the April 5 rocket launch shows the dramatic two orange dots rise into the sky and promptly disappear, followed by “strange lights and colorful, expanding clouds” that one YouTuber said resembled an “alien attack.”

Carrying scientific instruments in order to study how energy from space is exchanged in our atmosphere, the first Black Brant XI rocket launched at 6.14 pm EDT and flew to an altitude of 322 kilometers (200 miles), followed by a second two minutes later that reached an altitude of 325 kilometers (202 miles). Over the Norwegian Sea between 114 and 240 kilometers (71-150 miles) above altitude, the rockets deployed visible gas tracers – trimethyl aluminum (TMA) and a barium/strontium mixture – that ionize when exposed to sunlight. Colorful clouds produced by the interactions allow scientists to track how charged and neutral particles move through the aurora wind. Measurements of atmospheric density and temperature are also taken from aboard the rockets, while on-the-ground photography helps researchers to triangulate moment-by-moment positioning in 3D.

Lights that we know as the aurora borealis are the result of violent collisions between the Earth’s atmosphere and particles from the Sun as kinetic and thermal energy is released. Studying how auroras contribute to the total energy that enters and leaves Earth’s system is a process known as auroral forcing.

“The more we learn about auroras, the more we understand about the fundamental processes that drive near-Earth space — a region that is increasingly part of the human domain, home not only to astronauts but also communications and GPS signals that can affect those of us on the ground on a daily basis,” said NASA in a statement

Friday’s rocket launch was one of nine missions set to take place over the next two years as part of the Grand Challenge Initiative, GCI – Cusp, in order to understand processes that occur at Earth’s “cusp”. This is where the magnetic field bends down into the atmosphere, allowing particles from space to interfere with those from Earth.

Two other missions were conducted in December, as well as another two last January. The next round is set to take place in November.

Aurora Borealis in Tromso, Norway. MU YEE TING/Shutterstock

 

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