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ALASKA — With the bright lights and loud rumbling sounds, a rocket launch may seem like a grand finale. But for Dr. Charles Swensen, it's the start of what will likely be some exciting times ahead.
"It was very satisfying to see that thing get off the ground," Swensen said. "But it was more satisfying 15 minutes after it got off the ground."
Swensen says that's because he started to get a first look at data some seven probes were collecting in a sort of net over the aurora borealis. His project, now six years in the making, started with a pitch to NASA that was at first rejected, all because it hinged on creating seven probes the size of bread loaves that would disperse from a single rocket.
"They said, 'There's no way you can stuff that much stuff in a small package,'" Swensen explained. "And my response is, 'Well, of course you can. Look at cellphones and iPads, you know?' You can stuff a lot of stuff in a small package."
After convincing NASA that it could be done, engineers at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory started work on designing the miniature Aural Spacial Probes, or ASPs.
"That was really exciting and different," said Tim Nielsen, ASP program manager. "He wanted to take small, deployable payloads and put three of them in the front of the rocket and three in the back."
That energy that comes in from the aurora and geomagnetic storms heat up the atmosphere and cause drag on satellites. It can put them on opposite sides of the Earth in a couple of weeks.
–Dr. Charles Swensen
The seventh probe essentially comes from the body of the rocket. NASA engineers designed the system that ultimately dispersed the other six units across the sky during launch. Swensen's primary interest in the aurora borealis is to try to find a way to predict how it will affect passing satellites in orbit.
"That energy that comes in from the aurora and geomagnetic storms heat up the atmosphere and cause drag on satellites," Swensen explained, pointing out that the effect is very slight at first. "It can put them on opposite sides of the Earth in a couple of weeks."
Swensen said the process of getting NASA's Oriole IV rocket into the air was long and tedious. He had to carefully study the northern lights, trying to predict the best time to deploy the probes. After dozens of false countdowns, they had liftoff at 3:41 Wednesday morning.
"We think it was a raging success, at least getting it into the right place at the right time," Swensen said.