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Rocket to study origin of radio loss in Northern Lights

By Jon Cartwright

Joran Moen waits to fire his rocket to investigate radio-transmission loss in the Arctic (Credit: Yngve Vogt)

Flying over the Arctic can be like being on the far side of the moon: if the Northern Lights are particularly active, they will sometimes block all radio signals, thus severing communications with aircraft.

Joran Moen, a physicist at the University of Oslo, might have the key to explaining this phenomenon. Over the next few weeks he will be waiting for the right moment to launch his rocket ICI-2 so that it can fly 350 km into the sky to find the origin of the radio blocking, or “high-frequency backscattering”.

Scientists think the backscattering is caused by turbulent structures in the ionosphere’s electron plasma, which are related to the Northern Lights, so Moen is going to investigate. “The formation mechanisms of the structures are not yet determined, not even the altitude range,” he writes in an e-mail. “We want to study the instability mechanisms that drive the electron plasma turbulent.”

During its 10 minute flight, ICI-2 will perform high-resolution measurements of the plasma structures. It will also use an electron particle spectrometer to resolve the thickness of electron beams that are aligned in the magnetic field, down to around 10 metres.

“Due to the high complexity, every science mission has to limit its scope,” Moen continues. “This is the first research-rocket mission dedicated to characterize and to study the driving mechanisms behind the high-frequency backscatter phenomenon.”

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