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!

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 31 – Dog Sledding in Svalbard!

First, I should mention that the rocket is currently on hold again for a technical issue that was found during the vertical checks yesterday.  A faulty pressure regulator in the attitude control system was discovered during the daily checks.  Replacing the part means taking half the system apart, and that whole process takes a couple days.  It’s a little bit frustrating because the solar wind is looking pretty good, but it sounds like high winds would have prevented us from launching anyway, so we likely are not missing any real opportunity.

Frigga, a recent mother and Qunniq, her puppy. The dogs are all extremely friendly and LOVE the snow.

While the range team is working their butts off down in Andoya, we are stuck up here in Svalbard with nothing to do.  Nothing except finding a new adventure of course…  One of the professors teaching a course in Longyearbyen invited us to join his class on a dog sledding trip after their final exam, and we happily accepted the invitation.

The guide teaching us about the dogs and how to handle the sled. His advice? “Don’t fall off the sled, the dogs won’t stop for you.”

We show up at the facility, immediately get changed into the suits they provide and head out to meet the dogs.  We pair up, two to a sled, and take turns driving.  The dogs follow the team in front of you so the navigation is easy, we were primarily responsible just for starting and stopping our own team (not easy, these dogs want to run!).

The dogs run in teams of six. First you put the lead dogs in place and someone has to hold them because they are so excited to go. Then you have to carefully select the rest of the team because some of the dogs don’t get along very well.

The guides helped us pick out a team of dogs and hold them in place while the rest of the teams got ready.  If you have ever seen a dog get excited to go for a walk, just imagine 170 dogs begging for their chance to stretch their legs.  We could barely keep them in place, they are natural runners just itching to take off.

When not driving the sled you sit in front of the driver. The ride is smooth and quiet, all you hear is the jingle of the dog collars and the crunch of the sled on snow.

With all of the action and snow it was hard to fully capture the experience with photos, but Meghan managed to get a pretty good video with her phone while she was riding in the sled.

When we got back we had to help break up the teams and put the dogs back at their homes.  The dogs get fed after the run and most of them seemed to relax pretty quickly as we were leaving.  With their thick fur, you can bury these dogs in snow and they’ll just curl up to take a nap.

Everyone was all smiles after the trip, including me. We stayed plenty warm in the suits they provided, even with all the wind and snow.

Hopefully the rocket is back online tomorrow, I am starting to get anxious!

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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…

Day 26 – Launch Window Day 5

Typically I have updated the blog with reference to the number of days I’ve been traveling.  Now that we’re in the launch window itself I think it makes sense to talk in terms of those days too, since they are the important ones for us now, so I’ll list both

The first few days on site have been very exciting, to say the least.  I’m a bit behind in keeping this current, so I’ll provide a little recap here to catch up.

Day 1 of the window was uneventful, but very productive.  There are two rockets scheduled to launch during this campaign.  Our rocket, RENU 2, was not ready for launch quite yet due to some final testing by the NASA folks at the launch site.  This turned out to be OK since we had to iron out a bunch of details like communications and data monitoring.  CAPER, the other rocket mission, was ready to go but could never elevate into launch position due to high winds on the ground.

NASA carefully calculates the exact angle (a) to elevate the rocket during launch to hit our desired target. High winds can catch the tail fins of the rocket just after launch (b) and push the trajectory off course.

High winds at Andøya kept us down again on Days 2 and 3 (30-40 mph, mostly sustained).  The good news on Day 2 was that we finished testing so RENU 2 would be ready to go whenever the weather decided to cooperate.  The good news for Day 3 was that the solar wind conditions picked up and really started to look interesting.  We were very optimistic heading into Day 4 based on solar activity and forecasts.

RENU 2 and CAPER both elevated and ready to go on the launch pad at Andoya Space Center in Norway (Photo credit: NASA)

Day 4 has so far been the most exciting yet disappointing day all at the same time.  As we had hoped, the space weather conditions looked fantastic almost right away in the morning.  After a short hour delay while some fishing boats crossed the zone in front of the launch facility, the CAPER team was ready to go.  They had been first in line to launch for the first few days while the moon is still up and bright, and the light is slightly prohibitive for our instrumentation.  The CAPER team saw what looked like great conditions for their science and hit go!

CAPER shortly after takeoff.  RENU 2 waits silently in the foreground.  While on the ground both rockets are enclosed in styrofoam and hot air is pumped in to keep the motors from freezing.  (Photo credit: NASA)

Sadly the excitement was short lived.  An anomaly occurred in the third stage of the rocket shortly after takeoff.  The rocket only made it a little over 10 miles down range before spiraling out of control.  NASA has confirmed that the payload went down in a clear area with nothing or no one in danger.  The root cause of the issue still has not been determined, however.  So while conditions continued to look great for a while yesterday, we could not launch while we waited for clearance from NASA.

The silver lining to the issue experienced by CAPER is that it appears to be isolated to the third stage of the rocket.  Fortunately for us, the primary difference between the RENU 2 and CAPER rockets happens to be the third stage motor (i.e. RENU 2 uses a different motor than CAPER).   We will use the lessons can be learned from CAPER and right now NASA engineers are quadruple-checking every detail to make sure the motors are assembled correctly.  Right now the team is optimistic that we will have no issues similar to CAPER, in particular because of the different third stage.

So now, today, again we wait for the go-ahead from NASA.  Solar wind conditions look OK, but maybe not exactly ideal.  Some of the science ground support has been called off since we are still waiting for clearance from NASA, so we can’t be sure what conditions would look like.  For now that is all irrelevant, however.  Our first priority is just ensuring that we will have a successful launch, whenever that time comes.

Day 23 – Launch Window Day 1

We arrived safely a few days ago in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the island of Svalbard.  Where are is that exactly? The short answer is we are way up north. More specifically, we are about 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. With a permanent population of around 2,000 people, Longyearbyen is the northernmost substantial settlement in the world.

A view of Earth from over the North Pole helps illustrate exactly where Svalbard located. At a latitude of 78° N, we are 711 miles away from the Geographic North Pole, which is less than the distance from Chicago to New York City (790 miles).

The town of Svalbard is located in a glacier-fed river valley that empties into a fjord. The town was established by coal miners over a hundred years ago, and the mines are still active today.

The mountains that line the valley around Longyearbyen are beautiful in the daylight. With the right lighting you can get an idea of what they must look like.
Longyearbyen has a fairly active downtown with shops and restaurants. Cruise ships will stop here in the summer and dump thousands of tourists into the town, but things are a little bit quieter this time of year.
The University Center in Svalbard, or UNIS, is one of the major centers in Longyearbyen. Researchers here study biology, ecology, and geology of the Arctic in addition to the space research that our crew is interested in. Students may visit and take courses in any of these subjects as well.

We spent the first couple days in town at UNIS meeting with our hosts and finalizing plans for during the launch window. During the window, however, we are up on the mountain ridge at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO) to monitor conditions in real time with local access to data. We monitor the conditions with ground based and space based measurements.

The Svalbard science team sits in the control room at KHO, patiently waiting for acceptable conditions to launch into. We have cameras, magnetometers, and radars all working in unison to monitor the local space environment.

It has been 4 days since I’ve seen the sun, though I hear stories that it’s still up somewhere. Weather conditions have been poor so far, both on the surface and up in space. There is little evidence that the aurora we want to see has been present since it’s been cloudy for the past couple days, but winds at the launch site have made a launch unlikely anyway. Now we just have to sit and wait for the sun to send some activity our way and hope the winds cooperate at the launch site.


X-Ray images of the sun show several active regions that could provide some good aurora over the next few days.

Until next time…

Day 21 – On the Rail

We are getting very close to the moment of truth. The last few days in Andenes have been very busy as usual getting everything put together and ready for launch.

A crowd watches on as Clay, one of the NASA technicians carefully guides the nosecone on and into place. Clearance is very tight and the instruments are virtually irreplaceable at this point, so no slips can be afforded.

The main payload is assembled, tested, and ready to go. Putting the nosecone over the payload is one of the last steps in assembly and mostly signals the end of the experimenter’s hands-on involvement.

Each experiment is covered up in some form or fashion to protect it while on the ground. Before sealing the experiments inside the payload, we must be certain that all covers are removed. A list of covers is carefully tracked and maintained by the mission manager to ensure nothing is forgotten. I would hate to fly a camera with the lens cap still on!

With the main payload buttoned up and ready to go, the attention turns to the sub payload, which primarily consists of an instrument to measure the electric field in the ionosphere.

The COWBOY instrument comprises most of the sub payload. It uses long wire booms to measure the field that are carefully wound up around the payload body during flight. Steve Powell, Cornell University, is seen here with the NASA mission manager meticulously preparing his instrument for the rocket.

The rocket payload spins during flight to maintain stability, and the COWBOY instrument uses the rotational energy to deploy the wire booms.

(Video by NASA/ courtesy Steven Powell, Cornell University)

Small grooves along the side of the turkey pot (yes, seriously, a turkey pot) keep the wires separated until deployment, otherwise the instrument would end up a tangled mess. With booms wound, the skin goes and on and the sub payload is ready to join the fun.

Moving the sub payload back into place again required the use of a crane. The COWBOY mates to the bottom of the payload structure and will separate partway into the flight.

Once all the components of the payload are finally in place, it must be transported down to the rail to get attached to the rocket motors.

The payload gets wrapped up in plastic to protect it from the elements during transport.

NASA teams have been busy behind the scenes preparing the launch pad and the rocket motors while we worked to get the payload ready. Once we were done, all that was needed was to connect a few bolts and the rocket is pretty much good to go.

This is the payload’s final resting place prior to launch. Most of the rocket motors are protected by a Styrofoam housing, seen here in the background, to keep them warm. The building will literally slide back out of the way and the metal structure will elevate the rocket to the proper angle each day, waiting for the scientists to give the call for launch.

In the days prior to the launch window opening, there are still a few last minute checks to be done. The launch team goes through a practice countdown to ensure that telemetry systems are working and electrical systems respond like they should.

I only got a short glimpse of the rocket in its final configuration before heading to the airport. I hopped on plane for Longyearbyen, Svalbard yesterday, which is where I’ll stay during the launch window.

Until next time…