ISR Workshop Pt 2

Since the experiment night was such a late night, the organizers were merciful and put together a short excursion Wednesday morning that didn’t require much brain power.  We were shuttled down to a nearby park for a little nature walk, stopping once or twice along the way due to stray reindeer in the road.

Reindeer
I was never quick enough to get a snapshot of the reindeer in the road that forced us to stop the bus as the reindeer ran off into the woods. The driver did, however, slow down long enough for us to get a photo of domesticated reindeer.  Not exactly wild animals, but you get the point.

After spending a few hours outside on a short treasure hunt it was time to head back to Sodankylä and get to work.  As it turned out, the previous night’s experiment hadn’t turned out quite like we hoped.  The data from our “Plan C” was a little disappointing; imagine a storm chaser getting 2 hours to run an experiment at a world class facility but having only clear, blue skies to look at.  Fortunately for us, the radar facility in Sondrestrom, Greenland was operating very similarly to our “Plan A” experiment idea.  Mary McCready and the rest of the Sondrestrom crew were extremely helpful by providing us with a backup set of data to work with.

SDYradar
The Sondrestrom Research Facility is located along the west coast of Greenland just north of the Arctic Circle. The site is operated by SRI International and the National Science Foundation. (Photos courtesy of Mary McCready, SRI)

Before we got completely lost in data analysis, we found time to have a little more fun Wednesday night.  In Finland, saunas are a very integral part of the culture.  Some polls have reported that there is a sauna for every 2 people in Finland.  Our hosts wanted to make sure we got the opportunity to share in this bit of the culture, so they invited us out for a night at the sauna, which even included a floating sauna!

FloatingSauna
While most of the evening was spent in a traditional sauna along the shore, we each got a chance to experience the floating sauna. It’s very refreshing to open the sauna door and jump into the river and cool off, literally just a step away. (Photo by David Koronczay)

Thursday and Friday were spent working like crazy to get ready for the final presentations on Saturday morning.  The mornings were typically spent in lecture learning more about the radar systems and the afternoons/evenings were spent in group work cranking through the data as fast as possible.

Our original experiment idea involved looking horizon to horizon, north to straight up to south, in order to map the region in the atmosphere where aurora appears, typically called the auroral oval.  The data from the Sondrestrom radar was a little more complicated than our original experiment.  It performed similar horizon to horizon scans, but slightly tipped away from the vertical (local meridian).  The Sondrestrom mode produced data profiles that look like a fan waving back and forth.  The good news: we saw aurora!

In the video above the green regions indicate elevated electron density in the ionosphere (~100-400+ km altitude).  The occasional blips of red indicate regions of increased electron density, which is one way we can identify aurora even when the skies are too bright to see it visually.

ISRpresentation
Our final presentations on Saturday morning were a total group effort, everyone contributed. Here I am presenting some of the introductory material while the rest of my group waits patiently for their turn. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

Several days and long nights later, we were ready to present the results of the experiment to the rest of the school.  After a lot of hard work we had something we were confident to share and the presentation went well.  Just like that, however, the school was over and it was time to pack up, load the bus, and head back to the train station for our trip back to Helsinki.

Arctic_circle_santa_village
Santa’s Village is outside Rovaniemi, Finland. Just to clarify, he still *works* at the North Pole, this is just his offseason home. (By Ruslan0202 (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17033018)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we cross the Arctic Circle (~66° N latitude) on the way from Sodankylä to the train station in Rovaniemi.  Perhaps more importantly, we drove right past Santa’s Village, though we weren’t allowed to stop and say hello to the Big Guy.  Once back at the train station we took the same overnight train back to Helsinki.

SunsetFinland
The side benefit of super long days near the Arctic Circle is an extremely long sunset. This sort of view lasted for the better part of an hour during our train ride back south. It was a very nice way to cap off a long week of hard work.

The next morning once I arrived in Helsinki, I immediately started a week of travel through more of Scandinavia.  That will be the subject of another post (or two) in the near future.  Thanks for reading.  Until next time…

Addendum: For anyone who would like to see what we presented, I’ve uploaded our presentation here:  ISR2016-Group4.  A lot of it may not make sense without someone to talk about it, but it at least has some pretty pictures!

ISR Workshop Pt 1

I arrived in Sodankylä, Finland on Sunday with a group of about 50 students and instructors.  The group of students was incredibly diverse, with men and women from all over the world.  Aside from the handful of American students, people had come from Peru, China, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, England, and Canada, just to name a few.  As a result, by the time we arrived most people were too exhausted to do any work.  Instead, we unpacked and went for a walking tour of the area.

SodankyläRiverview
A walk around the town of Sodankylä was a great way to stretch the legs and get a feel for the local environment. The rivers that surround the town are beautiful.

The town of Sodankylä is fairly small, only about 6,000 people live in the town proper.  It’s a quiet region in Lapland (Northern Finland) with lots of wilderness.  The mosquitoes weren’t quite as oppressive as I had feared and the fresh air was a nice break from 2 days of traveling in confined spaces.

ReindeerHusbandry
This statue in downtown Sodankylä commemorates the long history of reindeer husbandry in Lapland and all over Scandinavia. The reindeer are semi-domesticated and have been herded for well over a thousand years.

Monday morning we started the week of school.  The first couple of days were mostly classroom lectures.  By the end of Tuesday, we were split into groups of 6 students to devise an experiment.  Tuesday night we ran experiments using incoherent scatter radar (ISR) facilities across the globe.

ConfusedBruce
When we arrived for our experiment at the radar facility we were told to come up with a “Plan C.” My look of confusion as to what to do next might be apparent here. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

On Tuesday night we were to execute the experiment we had designed that afternoon.  Facilities in Alaska, Massachusetts, Peru, Greenland, and Norway would all be operating simultaneously and available for us to use.  Our group had decided to use one of the Norway facilities to study aurora, but when we arrived for our scheduled time we were notified that the radar was having issues and would be unavailable.

ISRexperiment
This computer terminal allowed us to communicate with the radar technicians at the actual facility as well as visualize our results in real-time. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

Our group had about 2 minutes to throw out “Plan A” as well as “Plan B” that we were advised to come with and come up with a new idea.  We were able to cobble together something on the fly and moved forward anyways because, hey, that’s life.  Our group immediately set to work gathering data and ended up coming out OK, so it turned out not to be an issue.  It pays to be flexible.

For the sake of brevity I’ll finish the rest of the week in another post.  The week at ISR school was long and work-filled, but we found ways to have some fun too.  Until next time…

Day 38 – Launch!!!!!!

In case you haven’t heard yet, we finally launched the rocket!!!  RENU 2 successfully launched on the morning of 13 December 2015 at 0734 UT.  I had a good feeling from the moment I woke up that morning that it was going to be the day.  A quick look at the space weather conditions from my room were very promising from the start.

ZWO_Allsky_T+6
Aurora was active overhead all morning during the launch. A little bit of snow obscured many of the domes slightly, but the team at KHO worked hard all day to keep them clear. This image was taken by the ZWO Allsky Camera provided by KHO.

A light snow was falling that morning but the winds were fairly calm, so the drive up the mountain to the observatory was uneventful.  The larger concern was the snow moving through the region around Andenes.  Several cells of precipitation were forecast to move through that morning, each bringing gusts of wind that pushed out of limits.

EISCAT
The EISCAT radar kept us informed in real-time about the conditions in the ionosphere. We were looking for signatures of electron heating and the signals from EISCAT were clear that the ionosphere was indeed heating up overhead. (Photo from the EISCAT website)

As soon as the launch window opened we began to see the ideal aurora conditions.  Arcs of aurora that have strong signatures in the red wavelength began moving north over our heads.  These are what we call poleward moving auroral forms, or PMAFs.  They are an indicator of what is called cusp aurora.

DSC00515
Marc Lessard, the Primary Investigator of RENU 2 (and my boss), has the final call to launch. He can’t believe how ideal the conditions were that morning.  He made the call just minutes before the next snow squall moved in.

In an ideal case, the cusp will launch several of these PMAFs over head in a very predictable manner.  We watched an arc go over head and Marc made the call to bring the count down to T – 15 minutes and hold (15 minutes away from launch).  We then watched another PMAF go overhead and the count was brought down and held at T- 2 minutes.  After the third arc passed overhead, that was all we needed to see.

R2-Launch1
3… 2… 1… FIRE!!! In this image take just after ignition you can see the payload breaking through the top of the styrofoam box that housed the rocket on the pad.

After the experience with CAPER just a few weeks prior, no one celebrated quite yet.  We all waited as word came over the radio about each stage of the rocket’s flight.  1st stage separation successful, then 2nd stage successful.

R2-Launch7
RENU 2 after it has left the rail. The bursts coming out the side of the rocket are the “spin-up” motors that put the rocket into a stabilizing spin at several rotations per second.

After the 3rd stage a small deviation was detected and our stomachs dropped… The rocket was veering off several hundred kilometers to the east.  The fourth and final stage kicked it a little further off to the east.

RENU-2_flight_path
Image showing the ideal flight path of the rocket (blue dotted line) and the actual tracked path (red line).

The good news it that the path was well within the safety margins NASA had designed into the mission, so no people or other living things were in danger.  The other good news is that the rocket actually ended up hitting a brighter part of the arc than what we saw overhead!

lyr_T+7
All sky camera data from the middle of the rocket flight. The image on the top left shows the location of the red aurora relative to the map of Svalbard. The black line is where the rocket was supposed to go, and the darker red part (i.e. brighter aurora) just to the right of the track is where we actually hit. Score! (Image from University of Oslo)

Even after we realized that the rocket hit a good target, the celebrations were limited.  The next question we had to know was, “Did the instruments work?”  Everyone got busy immediately checking the state of their instruments, looking to see if good data came in.  All initial indications were that each instrument worked like it was supposed to, a HUGE relief.  Finally it was time to take a deep breath and smile a little bit.

DSC00545
The team at KHO looking for the rocket in the sky. Pictured left to right: Meghan Harrington, Bruce Fritz, Mikko Syrjasuo, Noora Partamies, Pal Gunnar, Marc Lessard

The excitement continued to build throughout the rest of the day and we celebrated that night.  This rocket campaign is such a huge collaboration of effort from literally hundreds of people and we can’t thank everyone enough for their tireless dedication through all the long hours and early mornings.  It took a combined effort from all over the world to make this mission a success and we are all extremely grateful.

Until next time…

…well I hope there’s a next rocket, I LOVE THIS JOB!!!!

Day 36 – Launch Window Day 15

It’s been a really exciting past few days, we have been VERY close to launching this rocket.  Science conditions were almost ideal yesterday but surface winds at Andøya foiled our attempt once again.  Weather is finally starting to cooperate a little bit so we have been able to go through a more typical routine.

ExpTrailer
The experiment teams are in place early each day and spend the launch window monitoring their instruments throughout the launch window. (Photo: Brent Sadler)

The launch team at Andøya is on station every day by 3:00 AM local time to start getting the rocket ready.  They perform diagnostic checks for about three hours prior to the launch window opening for the day.

RENU2-2
Umbilical connectors provide power, nitrogen purge, and other diagnostic connections to the payload while on the rail. The connections are cut or broken off at the time of launch and the bungee cords pull everything out of the way as the rocket flies by. Believe it or not, most of the umbilical system is actually re-used from previous launches — way to be eco-friendly NASA! (Photo: Brent Sadler)

Once ground checks are done, the rocket is ready to elevate into launch position.  At this point the official countdown holds at T – 45 minutes, or 45 minutes away from liftoff.  Before the rocket can go vertical, the winds need to cooperate.  Weather balloons are sent up every 30 minutes or so to measure wind profiles up to 10 miles above the ground.  If the winds are really strong (4o+ mph) the rocket won’t even come out of the building in order to protect the styrofoam box.

CAPER1
The styrofoam box is important for keeping the motors warm while waiting to launch. The box is light enough that it does not hinder the flight of the rocket, but that means it is susceptible to damage from strong winds. Here you can see the box shatter moments after CAPER (the other sounding rocket this winter) leaves the rail. (Photo: NASA)

If the winds are calm enough, the door opens, the building slides back on rails, and the launcher moves to the vertical position.  The launcher orientation is constantly adjusted as trajectory for the rocket flight is re-calculated every few minutes based on wind measurements.  If the wind speeds are too high in any given direction or vary too wildly from minute to minute we have to wait for conditions to improve.  If calm enough, the launch facility is evacuated of any non-essential personnel and the countdown continues, holding at T – 15 minutes.

RENU 2 on the rail
There has been a lot of excitement the past few days, mostly because it is the first time in a while the rocket has gone vertical with any chance to launch. (Photo: NASA)

At Andenes and here on Svalbard, the science teams begin monitoring solar wind conditions around 4:00 AM each morning.  It is important to watch the general trends of activity like any weather forecast.  The NASA satellite, ACE, orbits between the sun and earth and gives measurements of solar wind conditions that typically hit the earth between 45 minutes to an hour later.  With practice the team is able to predict when the aurora will begin to appear overhead.  Once things start to look interesting, the science team gives the go-ahead and the countdown continues.

ScienceControl
The science team at Andøya sits in their control room monitoring a large amount information, all of which helps to determine science conditions overhead. The Svalbard science team sits together in a room watching the same conditons but without the fancy large screens and countdown clock. (Photo: Brent Sadler)

Often the count will hold at T – 2 minutes while the science team makes its final determination.  Yesterday we got all the way down to T- 2 minutes and held for nearly 30 minutes.  As we began to get close to the 2 minute mark, winds began to vary too dramatically, even though the aurora overhead was just about ideal.  While waiting for the winds to behave we literally ran out of time in the launch window and we had to call it a day.

We only have about a week left in the window with a chance to launch so the whole team is starting to get a bit antsy.  We keep our fingers crossed for the weather conditions to come together one of these mornings.  I really hope the next post I share will have details about a successful launch!

Until next time…

 

Day 33 – Launch Window Day 12

The solar wind has been the most cooperative we have seen since we arrived in Svalbard.  Temperatures are dropping so skies are starting to stay clear which has opened up views for some spectacular displays.  Yesterday we woke up to find the sky covered with aurora — we couldn’t get up to the observatory fast enough!

Aurora-KHO2
The skies have been alive with activity the past couple days and the skies have been clear enough for us to see — FINALLY! You can see several other domes on top of the observatory at the bottom of the image.

We are here to study a specific type of aurora called “dayside aurora,” so-called because it only occurs on the side of the earth facing the sun.  We are able to see it because we are way up north where the sun don’t shine.  Dayside aurora is often dimmer than the brilliant substorm displays more commonly seen at lower latitudes.

Aurora-UNIS1
A spectacular substorm display greeted us last night when we walked outside after dinner. The building at the bottom of the image is the University Center at Svalbard (UNIS) where students can come to learn first-hand about substorms, aurora and other geophysical topics.

The dim aurora requires a 30 second exposure to reveal the colors seen above.  I captured the substorm arcs over UNIS using 8 second exposures.

ViewLongyearByen
View of the valley below the observatory. In the bottom center you can see Longyearbyen with the fjord behind it. In the bottom right corner you can see one of the radars at EISCAT.

Besides seeing the aurora, the other perk of clear weather is that we can get a better view of the landscape.  We can see Longyearbyen from the observatory as well as the incoherent radar facility down the hill, EISCAT.  EISCAT is one of the most important tools we use in addition to cameras to monitor ionospheric conditions overhead during the launch window.  The crew in charge of the facility was kind enough to show us around.

EISCAT-tour
EISCAT antennas pump megawatts of radio waves into the ionosphere with 32- and 42-meter dishes. The radar measures the emission reflection to determine electron density, electron temperature, ion temperature, and ion drift velocity in the ionosphere.  Here an EISCAT scientists gives us a tour of the power systems responsible for operating the beams. (Photo by Marc Lessard)

Dayside aurora is only possible for a short time each morning and we plan our launch window around it.  Toward the end of the window each day the sun starts to lighten the sky, just barely, even though it never rises over the horizon.  Fortunately for us it never really gets so dark that we can’t see aurora in the sky.

Aurora-KHO-Sunrise
When activity is high enough the aurora remains visible, even the dimmer red aurora that we are interested in for our launch.  The streak on the left is a satellite that passed through the camera frame during the 30 second exposure.

We only caught the tail end of the substorm last night, but the general activity level has continued ever since.

NoonAurora
This arc appeared overhead today after we got back from the launch window…at noon! The progression of the waves through the arcs was clearly evident over the span of minutes, sometimes even seconds. This was a bright enough arc that I only needed an 8 second exposure.

Sadly, despite such seeing such fantastic aurora up here we have not yet launched because of the high ground winds at the launch site in Andenes. The launch crew hasn’t even gotten the rocket out of the housing and elevated into launch position.  So now we still wait for the ground weather to cooperate and hope that the conditions overhead continue to cooperate.

Until next time…

Day 30 – Launch Window Day 9

Days 7 and 8 of the launch window were lost due to gale force winds at the launch site.  Fortunately things were pretty quiet overhead in the ionosphere, as predicted, so we likely would not have launched anyway.

GettingToKHO
Most days visibility is almost zero on top of the mountains outside Longyearbyen. (Photo: Noora Partemies)

Conditions are starting to pick up in the solar wind but sadly another day has been lost.  This morning during the initial daily checks a pressure regulator in the attitude control system failed and had to be replaced.  It requires enough work to take the rocket down and replace the part that we completely lost the day and tomorrow may be in doubt as well.

The ground conditions at Svalbard have been much better than at the launch site.  The break from the wind has been nice since it had been pretty nasty on top of the mountain when we first arrived (the video above is one of the better looking days).  Luckily for us we have a pretty sweet ride to the top.  We drive our four wheel drive van up about 2/3 up the side of the mountain to a coal mining outpost, then rendezvous with a familiar mode of transportation.

BeltWagon
You may remember seeing a vehicle like this last year when I was at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Turns out these Hagglunds (a.k.a. belt-wagons) are useful vehicles at both poles!

The bad news about the mostly cloudy and windy weather we keep getting on Svalbard is that it really limits visibility.  Technically we could find the right conditions to launch without seeing the sky, but we all would feel much better if we could see what we were launching into!

DomesOnKHO
View from atop the observatory during one of the rare moments with a break in the clouds. There are over a dozen different domes with different cameras set up to watch the skies here at KHO. The moon is in the upper right corner doing its best to ruin visibility for the cameras.

Once again we wait, hopefully we have some good news soon.

Until next time…

Day 27 – Launch Window Day 6

NASA officials gave us the thumbs up to proceed again today as normal, so we are good to go after the unfortunate scare caused by the CAPER launch. A combination of factors, like using a different motor than CAPER and review of our own assembly procedures gives us confidence that RENU 2 will not suffer a similar fate as the other mission this campaign.

Marc Laughing
The mood for the launch team was much lighter today after a couple stressful days dealing with the CAPER anomaly. Even the boss found time to laugh (who knows what was funny…)

Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate today.  Winds on the ground were not a problem, but weather balloons launched throughout the morning indicated shear winds in excess of 100 mph at roughly about 5 miles altitude.  It turned out to be no big deal, however, since the space weather conditions were not very cooperative either.

20151202-GOES-Xray
The sun rotates on average once every 27 days. It rotates left to right as viewed from Earth. Solar wind from two active regions (in the red circles) is currently on either side of Earth, leaving us in a quiet window. (Photo: GOES X-Ray Imager)

The Earth is in a short lull for solar wind conditions.  The solar wind is always blowing because the sun is really hot and hot gases expand.  The effect is the opposite of why you need to add air to your car tires in the winter when the temperatures drop.  Really active regions on the surface of the sun will produce short bursts like gusts of wind.

20151202-WSA-ENLIL
Plasma in the solar wind traces out a spiral pattern like water from a sprinkler. Since the solar wind takes a few days to reach Earth (green dot), active sources on the sun (yellow dot) may be almost out of sight by the time we feel the effects on Earth. This diagram is from a NOAA space weather forecast model that illustrates how dense regions of high speed plasma form a spiral after leaving the sun. (Photo: WSA-ENLIL, NOAA)

Typical gusts of solar wind take days to travel the 93 million miles to Earth.  Predicting exactly when they will hit is about as reliable as tracking a hurricane in the ocean (often close to correct, but not always spot on).  Larger events that come from Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, like in the picture in the header, are a little more extreme but that is a subject for another day.  NASA’s SDO has been tracking solar activity for five years now, and has a good history of activity on the sun, including for the solar maximum that is currently winding down.

Tomorrow the weather at Andenes looks to be extremely windy so we are planning to take the day off since a launch is extremely unlikely.  Hopefully the weather will cooperate when we get into the next stream of solar wind.

Until next time…