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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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 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 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 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…