NASA plans to shoot rockets through the Northern Lights to study Aurora Borealis

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Jan 19, 2015, 4:36 PM EST (Updated)

It’s one of the most beautiful phenomena in existence, but scientists still don’t know exactly how the Aurora Borealis works. So we’re going to shoot some rockets into it.

The Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights, is a naturally occurring light display caused by charged particles entering the atmosphere and causing ionization. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but that beauty has left researchers scratching their heads for years. We know the basics of the science, but not exactly how that movement is structured.

So NASA is prepping the Auroral Spatial Structures Probe (ASSP) to fire off into the Northern Lights to take a ton of readings to try and finally piece the whole thing together. According to Popular Science, the mission calls for five suborbital rockets to be launched into an active aurora over the next several weeks.

The 70-foot, 11,000-pound rockets will spend 10 minutes collecting intel, supplemented by six coffee-can-sized payloads fired from an onboard air cannon. The smaller devices will constantly record the activity of the electric field, ion density and magnetic field while drifting back down to Earth. Rockets have been shot through the phenomenon before, but never with instruments this complex.

Along with figuring out exactly how the movement of the Aurora Borealis works, the team believes ASSP could also paint a clearer picture of how “solar radiation, weather, and the Earth’s magnetosphere mix together” to affect everything from climate to global communications.

(Via Popular Science)