NASA launches a suborbital sounding rocket to study how radio waves escaping from Earth’s ionosphere can affect orbiting satellites. Scheduled for launch from the Wallops Island Flight Facility on May 26, the VLF Trans-Ionospheric Propagation Experimental Rocket (VIPER) will measure how these escaping radio waves interact with electrons in the Van Allen Belt.
Space may seem like a very big, empty space…well, but if you look at it in the electromagnetic spectrum, it’s filled with all kinds of radiation from the Sun, the planets, and even the Earth. The interaction of this radiation contributes to what is called space weather, which can cause all sorts of problems with devices in space or on the surface of our world.
An example is very low frequency (VLF) radio. These radio waves are produced naturally by lightning, but they are also used as a means of communication with submarines when submerged. During the day, the layer of Earth’s atmosphere known as the ionosphere is dense enough to trap them, but at night the ionosphere is less dense and some VLF waves can escape following magnetic lines of force. .
This is a potential problem because these waves can interact with electrons in the Van Allen radiation belts that encircle our planet, producing intense energetic electron fluctuations at altitudes ranging from 14,300 miles (23,000 km) at 23,500 miles (37,800 km), which is also the altitude at which GPS and geosynchronous satellites orbit. As VLF waves and electrons interact, this could cause problems for the electronics on board these spacecraft that we depend on for communications and navigation.
For more on that, the two-stage Terrier rocket is scheduled to lift off from Wallops on Wednesday at 9:15 p.m. EDT. It will climb to an altitude of 94 miles (151 km) and take measurements in the VLF range before plunging somewhere into the Atlantic Ocean, although it will not be recovered.
Meanwhile, ground stations in Maine, North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado, Virginia and elsewhere will take their own measurements for comparison. The hope is that the new data will help validate existing models of electromagnetic fields and the ionosphere.
The mission will be covered live beginning at 8:55 p.m. EDT from IBM punch video website.
“It was surprising to find that although many ground and orbital observations of VLF absorption/reflections/transmission were made, there were no measurements in the region where all the action occurs,” says Dr. John Bonnell, principal investigator of the project from the University of California at Berkeley. “While we have good models of what to expect in such regions, actual measurements are essential to pin down the details of these models, as well as to develop the instruments needed to explore more difficult regions.”