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Why Did NASA Shoot a Rocket Through the Northern Lights?

While it may look like a futile attack by NASA against the northern lights, there was a purpose to the space agency shooting up a rocket into the Aurora Borealis Sunday night.

(Related: These are the top videos from last night's stunning northern lights show)

MSNBC reports that the rocket was launched at Poker Flats Research Range in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of NASA's Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfven Resonator (MICA) project, which has several university and institutional collaborators. So what does MICA intend to find out? It looks to study electromagnetic energy called Alfven waves that create the type of light seen most frequently in the northern lights (one that is thick and horizontal). MSNBC has more:

The mechanism behind the Alfven-wave displays is thought to be like a guitar string that gets "plucked" by energy delivered to the magnetosphere by the solar wind, said Marc Lessard, a UNH space physicist and one of the leaders of the MICA campaign.

[...]

Physicists think the "string" takes the form of a beam of electrons accelerated by solar energy. "The process turns on an auroral arc, and then these waves develop on both sides of the resonator moving up and down. That's the theory, and it appears to be valid, but there's never been any really good measurement of the process in action. That's what MICA is all about," Lessard said.

Watch the MSNBC Nightly News report:

MSNBC reports scientists involved saying that the measurements taken by the rocket thus far look promising.

[H/T io9]

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