‘SHAKY SATELLITES’: Three rockets being launched from Svalbard for ‘haywire’ mission about solar winds


Photo of rocket launch as seen from EISCAT by Martin Langteigen via UNIS

It might seem strange for scientists to use “shaky” and “haywire” as positive descriptors for a trio of rocket launches now taking place in Svalbard, but the discordant thinking is a good match for locals thinking more about catching the resulting light shows in the polar night skies rather than the solar winds the rockets are meant to help study.


An ICI-5 rocket lifts off from Ny-Ålesund on Tuesday morning. Photo by Helge Markussen via Andøya Space Center.

The first rocket launched from Ny-Ålsund at 8:43 a.m. Tuesday, according to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It made for illuminating pictures for the relative few who knew the timing of the launch, even if the outcome wasn’t so bright.

“The rocket carried the payload to 157 miles altitude” NASA noted in a press release. “Preliminary data shows that the mission did not perform as planned and is under review.”

The mission, if other launches go better, is to gauge solar winds which are mostly deflected away from Earth except near the Poles. Such winds can cause problems such as disrupting satellites, radio and GPS signals, so scientists are hoping the launches can provide guidance to developing better technology that avoids such pitfalls.

The project is titled the Grand Challenge Initiative – Cusp which, according to NASA, is a series of nine sounding rocket missions (including the three from Svalbard) exploring the polar cusp.

“Sounding rockets are a type of space vehicle that makes 15-minute flights into space before falling back to Earth,” the NASA summary notes. “Standing up to 65 feet tall and flying anywhere from 20 to 800 miles high, sounding rockets can be aimed and fired at moving targets with only a few minutes notice.”

Two more rockets are scheduled to be launched from Ny-Ålesund on undetermined days during the next two weeks, according to Katie Herlingshaw, a upper atmospheric physics PhD student at The University Centre in Svalbard helping track the launches. In a post on a local Facebook page, she offers photography and timing advice for residents who should be able to see it from Longyearbyen.


Chemical tracers light up the skies above Svalbard during a previous rocket launch in Ny-Ålesund to track solar activity. Image courtesy of NASA.

“These rockets will use chemical releases to investigate high up in the Earth’s atmosphere, which will create psychedelic colours in the sky (as shown in the photo from a previous launch),” she wrote. “These releases should be visible from Longyearbyen.”

“It is not possible to say when the rockets will be launched until 30 seconds before they are launched, but the releases will not happen until about 10 minutes later, so we will try to give anyone who wants to go and watch/photograph the show, a 10 minute warning on this page. The launch window is from around 9 a.m.-1 p.m. every day for the next 2 weeks or so.”