Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Into the Light of the Night Sky: Scientists at a Research Center near Fairbanks, Alaska, Are Shooting Rockets into the Aurora Borealis to Measure the Phenomenon's Effect on Telecommunications and Other Activities

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Into the Light of the Night Sky: Scientists at a Research Center near Fairbanks, Alaska, Are Shooting Rockets into the Aurora Borealis to Measure the Phenomenon's Effect on Telecommunications and Other Activities

Article excerpt

The Poker Flat Research Range is eerie at night. Located about thirty miles northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, at the end of a winding gravel road, the place is desolate and bitterly cold as winds blow off the snow fields. Trees line the road and are silhouetted against the brightly lit sky. But the light isn't coming from the small capital city of some eighty thousand people nearby. It comes from the aurora borealis, or northern lights, those mesmerizing green-white, pinkish-yellow, or blue-purple lights that appear in the sky in the arctic regions of northern countries.

But what makes this 5,132--acre site eerie is that there are retry few people around at night, yet the machinery studding the area hums and moves all the same. In a field beyond the gravel road, 256 posts stand like mutated scarecrows, each post about six feet high, with four or five arms sticking out--the entire field listening to the disturbances in sound transmission caused by the mysterious lights in the sky. "Imaging riometer antennae" they are called, owned and jointly operated by the Japanese Communications Research Laboratory with the University of Alaska. There is a building nearby, the ten thousand-square-foot Nell Davis Center (named for the man whose efforts lauched the rocket-research facility itself), which is filled with computer banks and is the principal data-gathering and observation facility, as well as the hub for rocket command, at Poker Flat. Nearby, on the ground, huge metallic, radar dishes creak and moan as they twist, tracking satellites zipping somewhere in space. Every so often, the dishes turn quickly, as if trying to reel in a naughty satellite making a run for it. The machines have brains.

At night, those brains rest in windowless trailers in the compound. They are the physicists, launch officers, and others who program and monitor the machines. The men and women here chose to work at the world's largest, land-based rocket range because Poker Flat is famous for its rocket launches and aurora studies.

Fairbanks itself is unique. "It's a little bit of a frontier town," says one scientist. "I remember, before I came here, my boss described Fairbanks as a place where, if you went into a bar, the person on the left is on the run from the law and the person on your right is a retired astronaut. It's a bit like that here."

In 1968, in keeping with the frontier atmosphere, scientists named their new rocket range after the pastoral village of Poker Flat in Bret Harte's 1892 short story, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," which describes how residents in that town rid themselves of gamblers and other unsavory characters. Today, the modern, massive rocket range is operated by the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute, under contract to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It's a running joke that Poker Flat was put together in the late 1960s with materials begged and borrowed from NASA and military surplus outfits. The first launch occurred in March 1969.

These days, scientists gaze at the aurora, listen to its disruptions, fog it up with luminous smoke, slice it with rockets, and still the lights shine night after night. The scientists' purpose is to measure the aurora's effects on telecommunications, navigation, and other activities. In the past, the usual methods of analyzing the aurora required satellite and space shuttle (both of which were too high to get into the aurora) or aircraft and high-altitude balloons (which were too low). Unlike past methods, the Poker Flat rockets zip into the heart of the aurora, where they allow scientists to collect data most directly.

Since 1969, the Poker Flat scientists have launched more than three hundred major rockets and eighteen hundred smaller, meteorological ones into the heavens. The large missiles are thirty to seventy feet high and weigh seven hundred to twenty-two thousand pounds. …

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