Winter Sunlight

Living in Alaska is pretty awesome sometimes

We live roughly 20 miles south of Poker Flat Research Range ("the largest land-based rocket research range in the world and the only high-latitude rocket range in the United States" according to their website), which means we're close enough to watch/hear rocket launches if we happen to catch them. We rarely do, since most of what they do is aurora research and it's very spur-of-the-moment -- instead of scheduled launches, they wait for active aurora displays and launch rockets into the aurora itself to study it.

But we got a really fantastic view of one tonight, and they're currently holding for a launch window on another rocket, so we may get to see another. :D btw, you can stalk the rocket range on Twitter, where they often post livestream links. (Tonight's livestream.)

So what does a rocket launch look like? First of all, while they're nothing whatsoever like the scale of a manned launch, these rockets are not tiny. They're as much as 80 feet tall. Even from 20 miles away, it sounds like a jet taking off -- a loud, deep rumble. Watching tonight, we first heard the rumble, then saw a flash that lit up the horizon (I feel as if it should be the other way around due to speed of light vs. speed of sound, but they launched two rockets more or less at once, so we might've been hearing one and seeing the other). After that, there is a very bright orange spark traveling upward, framed against the stars. These are old-fashioned chemical rockets with stages, and when a stage falls, there's another bright flash and then you can see the glowing expended stage falling while the rest of the rocket continues upward.

(PFRR offers a reward to civilian hikers/hunters for finding rocket stages in the woods and calling in their location. It's pretty much all wilderness up here, so you're highly unlikely to have one fall *on* you. I mean, you'd have to have the world's worst luck for that. We hope.)

When the rocket reaches its target altitude, it releases a cloud of chemicals that disperse into the aurora and are used to study the ionization, solar wind, etc etc technobabble. We could see this very clearly tonight, a bright cloud expanding slowly in a curving squiggle as the rocket dumped its payload in the upper atmosphere. I don't think I'd realized that the chemicals they use fluoresce in the visible spectrum. I've seen pictures, but I guess I thought it was enhanced -- I've never seen the payload dumping in person before. But it's very bright!

Here's a timelapse/composite image showing the above-mentioned process (those bright white smudges are the payload release, but viewed in realtime, it really looks like more of an unwinding spiral or S curve -- also notice the slightly alarming, flaming "ploofs" in the bottom right-center where either the rocket stages or part of the rockets themselves have fallen back to earth). And here's another image showing what a launch looks like to the bare eye, though we're too far away to see details, so all we can see is a rising orange-white flare.

PFRR offers weekly tours of their facility and we took one of the tours last fall, so we got to walk around the launch gantries and see the control room and bunker (of course they have a bunker) and all of that. :D They're super friendly and delighted to talk about their work with civilians, and during our tour we were fortunate that the facility manager was on site and conducting part of the tour, which apparently is rare, so she was able to answer even the most technical and esoteric of questions.

My tax dollars at work! Take my money, NASA!

ETA: Sweet, here's a photo of tonight's payload release. That's what it looked like -- the curvy pale smear in the center of the two arms of the aurora.

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Very cool! I'd never heard of Poker Flats... now I wonder how many other smaller rocket ranges NASA has tucked away all over the US. You just never know where space is going to happen. :)

We've been lucky to catch two launches of Falcon 9 rockets (the ones that take off and then part of it lands again) in Florida. It's always such a thrill, all the noise and vibration (and sonic booms... I get ridiculously excited by sonic booms).

We're in Florida but have never ventured up to a launch. Brilliant Husband's family was here for a year or two when he was young, and they did take the kids to one; he has only vague memories.