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NASA Joins International Science Team in Exploring Auroral Cusp from Norway

Grand Challenge Mission Patch
Grand Challenge mission patch
Credits: Andøya Space Center

North of Norway over the Norwegian and Greenland Seas, the magnetic bubble surrounding the Earth dips inward, allowing space particles to funnel in toward the planet.

NASA and United States scientists will join those from Norway, Japan, Canada and other countries during the next two years to investigate the physics of heating and charged particle precipitation in this region called the geomagnetic cusp — one of the few places on Earth with easy access to the electrically charged solar wind that pervades the solar system.

The Grand Challenge Initiative (GCI) – Cusp is a series of international sounding rocket missions planned for launch in 2018-2019. Together, the rockets provide unprecedented coordinated studies of near-Earth space at the polar regions. In addition to helping us understand the fundamental processes of our neighborhood in space, such knowledge is needed for safe navigation and communication near the poles, where solar activity can disrupt radio signals.

“The magnetic cusp is a unique place in near Earth space — where energy from the solar wind can come directly down into Earth’s atmosphere. This energy heats the atmosphere by hundreds of degrees, inflating it and driving fierce winds of both neutral atmospheric and ionized gases. The cusp thus provides a unique laboratory for understanding how planetary atmospheres are modified by the intense energy inputs from their stars,” said Doug Rowland, a space scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and principal investigator of the Visualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2 experiment or VISIONS-2 scheduled for launch in December 2018.

Eight missions with 11 rockets will launch from two sites in Norway — Andøya Space Center and Svalbard Rocket Range. The first mission — a NASA mission called the Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment, or AZURE — launches in March 2018.

In some cases, launches will be conducted nearly at the same time from Andøya and Svalbard, providing simultaneous observations at different altitudes and latitudes for the first time. Sounding rockets launched from these sites are able to fly into the cusp and measure the solar particles streaming from the sun.

“During the polar night mid-winter, in December and January months when seven of the missions will be conducted, it is dark all day in Svalbard. The cusp is then visible to the naked eye. Svalbard is well equipped with ground-based radars and all-sky cameras to determine the launch conditions for cusp rockets,” said Jøran Moen with the University of Oslo and principal investigator of the Norwegian Investigation of Cusp Irregularities-5 or ICI-5 mission in December 2019.

This animation shows the trajectories of several of the Grand Challenge missions.
Credits: Andøya Space Center/Trond Abrahamsen

The Grand Challenge will provide significant advances in understanding of near-Earth space beyond what each partners’ independent projects could achieve individually.

“For the first time ever, we aim to coordinate launches of sounding rockets through the cusp region from both Andøya and Svalbard,” said Moen. The main advantage is that we will obtain multidimensional information when combining observations for several rocket trajectories. We also will make data accessible through the Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing system, or SIOS. Our aim is to significantly increase the number of scientists who can dive into the exploration of the unique data sets to come, thus increasing the academic capacity to discover new physics.”

“Making sure that the appropriate ground based systems and modeling communities were included as early as possible has been a very important issue during the GCI – Cusp build-up,” said Kolbjørn Blix, GCI – Cusp program manager and director of space systems at Andøya Space Center. Planning began in 2012, he said.

In addition to AZURE, VISIONS-2 and ICI-5, other NASA Grand Challenge missions are the Twin Rockets to Investigate Cusp Electrodynamics or TRICE-2 (led by the University of Iowa, launching December 2018), The Cusp Alfven and Plasma Electrodynamics Rocket or CAPER-2 (led by Dartmouth University, launching January 2019), and the Cusp-Region Experiment or C-REX 2 (led by the University of Alaska, launching November 2019), which also includes three Canadian instruments from the University of Calgary (also flying on VISIONS-2).

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will fly the SS-520-3 in January 2019, which investigates the ion outflow mechanism in the cusp.

“It is quite exciting for us to participate in the GCI – Cusp with advanced science payloads on SS-520-3,” said Yoshifumi Saito, JAXA project principal investigator. “Participation in GCI – Cusp is a unique opportunity to dramatically increase our knowledge about the cusp by conducting comprehensive observations including ground-based radar and optical observations as well as GCI – Cusp sounding rockets.”

An international undergraduate student mission called G-Chaser, coordinated through the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, will also be conducted in January 2019. University students from the United States, Norway and Japan will fly several experiments to conduct measurements and technology development in the upper atmosphere in the region near the cusp.

Participating universities include the University of Tokyo; University of Oslo; Arctic University of Norway, Tromso; Capitol Technology University, Laurel, Maryland; Penn State, State College, Pennsylvania; University of New Hampshire, Durham; University of Puerto Rico; Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; and West Virginia University, Morgantown.

Additional information on the GCI-Cusp is available at:

NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program is conducted at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Wallops is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Orbital ATK provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations through the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding-rocket program for the agency.

By Keith Koehler
NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.