Extreme Citizen Science: Seeing the Invisible

UPDATE 12.12.19

On Tuesday, December 10, Clemson University’s CHI rocket successfully launched, and Hearts in the Ice were able to take 65 timelapse photos at about an 80° angle:

“When the text came in ‘ready to launch in seven minutes’ we dressed like firemen and we were out the door as quickly as possible….to experience all of that colour in the sky, exposed as we were with the cold, the wind, thoughts of Polar Bears, us in the dark—we felt so very privileged!”

You can read more and see photos on their blog.

Unfortunately, due to uncooperative weather, the C-REX-2 window ended without the rocket team being able to launch. A new launch window may be scheduled for a future date, potentially after the solar minimum has passed.

We are glad that Hearts in the Ice were able to gather data on CHI, contributing to the field of citizen science in a new way. Each day, Hilde and Sunniva demonstrate the power, tenacity, and skill that citizen scientists contribute to scientific advances, and the Aurorasaurus team is grateful for their efforts.


Over the wing of a plane, an aurora forms a curtainlike u-shape in the sky. Most of it is faintly red, with bright green tinges.

Cusp aurora photographed from an aircraft full of scientific instruments that is supporting the rocket launches.
Photo Credit: John Elliott (University of Alaska)

Hearts in the Ice—a two-woman citizen science team overwintering in Svalbard, Norway and doing citizen science—are volunteering to gather data for a set of Grand Challenge Initiative scientific rocket missions studying the mysterious north polar cusp. That’s right, we are now talking about extreme citizen science combined with rocket science!

When conditions are right, the 24-hour night will be broken by high-tech fireworks reaching high up to the foot of the cusp aurora. These will explore aspects of the cusp atmosphere that are invisible to other instruments. The remote location where Hearts in the Ice are staying has a clear view of the launches in good weather: perfect for citizen science photography.


Daytime Aurora 

A small image of Earth in the middle of the image is surrounded by a blue diagram of the magnetosphere, billowed around it, with a small complete curve to the left and the magnetic fields streaming out beyond the edge of the photo to the right. At the north and south poles, funnel-shaped gaps in the magnetic field link space with the Earth.

Earth’s magnetosphere, showing the northern and southern polar cusps.
Credits: Andøya Space Center/Trond Abrahamsen

While scientists often study the auroras that appear at night, auroras occur all the time. Some take place on the dayside of the planet, in polar areas called “cusps.” The cusps are entry points in the Earth’s magnetosphere near the north and south poles that funnel solar wind particles in and leaking atmospheric particles out.

The incoming particles strike the Earth’s ionosphere, creating daytime auroras that aren’t usually visible. Cusp aurora can only be viewed from a few settled places on Earth, very far north. To study them, scientists are braving freezing temperatures—and polar bears—in Svalbard, Norway, where the sun never rises in winter. Close to the magnetic north pole, they have conducted experiments as part of a multi-year international mission called the Grand Challenge Initiative – Cusp.


Seeing the Invisible

Hundreds of miles above the ground blows the “neutral wind:” streams of particles that move invisibly through the atmosphere. The air on the edge of space is sometimes surprisingly dense, and no one knows why—yet. As part of GCI-Cusp, rockets will probe the cusp aurora. A sounding rocket is a type of space vehicle that makes 15-minute flights into space before falling back to Earth. Standing up to 65 feet tall and flying anywhere from 20 to 800 miles high, sounding rockets launched with only a few minutes notice. This flexibility and precision make them ideal for capturing the strange phenomena inside the cusp.

C-REX-2 rocket launch – The Science. Credit: Jason Ahrns

A map shows the trajectories of three rockets launched from mainland Norway and the northern island Svalbard. CHI, ICI-5, and C-REX-2 are labeled. East of C-REX-2's trajectory, on the southern end of Svalbard, is a label for Hearts in the Ice's location.

Hearts in the Ice has a front-row seat to perform citizen science on the C-REX-2 launch. Excerpt of this image.
Image Credit: NASA Goddard Image Studios

  • The first rocket is called CREX-2. It will launch north from Andøya Space Center on the mainland. The Principal Investigator for the mission is Mark Conde of the University of Alaska.
  • Second is CHI, launching south from Ny-Ålesund about 15-30 minutes later. Its Principal Investigator is Miguel Larson of Clemson University
  • The third was ICI-5, which was planned to launch about 10 minutes after CHI from Ny-Ålesund. The Principal Investigator is Jøran Moen of the University of Oslo. Conditions were favorable for this rocket on November 26, and it launched successfully.

In addition to carrying scientific instruments, C-REX-2 and CHI will use a special technique to create artificial visual tracers of the invisible plasma and neutral particle pool physics that result in beautiful, complex scientific “fireworks.” Instead of stars or fountains, they will take the shape of a colorful 3-D array that evolves with time, the fourth dimension. Scientists will use the data gathered to probe neutral and charged particles in 4-D. The weather for launch must be just right, and the window for success is narrow. 

In order for the experiment to work, the puffs must be lit with sunlight at high altitudes, but the world beneath must be dark. The 24-hour night of the North Pole this time of year is a perfect environment; as the pole tilts away from the sun for the winter, light hits the atmosphere but not the ground. 

Three types of tracers will be launched. Like the smoke from a glittering fireworks display, they will drift, allowing scientists to see the unseen:

Against a dark sky and faint waves of aurora, small colorful poofs of color light up in green and blue. The colors drift in different directions for a few seconds, stretching like blown smoke.

Video from CREX’s last flight, showing vapor tracers following high-altitude polar winds. Both CREX-2 and CHI missions will use a similar methodology to track winds thought to support the density enhancement inside the cusp.
Credits: NASA/CREX/Mark Conde

    • Barium, which is released first, reacts with sunlight and ionizes a purple-red color that drifts with the rest of the charged particles in the upper atmosphere. It elongates along the Earth’s magnetic field lines, likely drifting northeast.
    • Strontium is released second and along with neutral barium shows a purple-blue. The strontium remains neutral and shifts to a greenish-blue color that rides along with neutral particles on the very high altitude wind, likely drifting northwest.
    • At lower altitudes, small explosions release TMA, tri-methyl aluminum. Its chemistry lights up white or blue-white like a glowstick in round shapes, then drifts with the lower-altitude neutral wind.  

This technique is one of the only ways to get these valuable measurements, and has been safely used for decades, on par with fireworks.

By observing, measuring, and photographing the event, scientists will learn more about the structures, densities, and irregularities of the “winds” that inhabit the mysterious cusp region aurora. 

While those in Svalbard, Norway, may be able to watch the launches, it will be very low on the horizon from the mainland and also difficult to view since the sky will be less dark. But there are stalwart members of the Aurorasaurus community are on hand to observe and collect data!


Extreme Citizen Science

Two women strike a power pose, each with an arm around the other's shoulder. They are standing next to a snowmobile on a snowy landscape. The lighting is dark but reflective strips on their clothes glow bright.

Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby
Photo Credit: Hearts in the Ice

Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby are overwintering at Bamsebu, raising awareness of climate change through citizen science and educational outreach. They are experienced aurora watchers and photographers, and their remote cabin should have a clear view west toward the expected apogee of the cusp rockets. As Hearts in the Ice is contributing to Aurorasaurus during their stay in Norway, Dr. Liz MacDonald connected them with the international rocket scientists launching CREX-2 for an amazing opportunity. If conditions allow, the rocket teams will contact Strøm and Sorby by Iridium satellite phone, enabling them to contribute photographic data that can complement other data being gathered—from the ground, from the rockets, and even from an airplane—and provide a unique perspective helping to better unravel the complex four-dimensional dynamics at play. Their mission is difficult, but they’ve “packed a bag of patience” and are ready to meet the challenge. It’s an excellent example of the power of ordinary, dedicated people in extraordinary places to contribute to aurora rocket science: extreme citizen science!

Stay tuned to Twitter for more updates as the whole team labors to launch their rockets!

@AndoyaSpace  @nasa_wallops  @heartsintheice  @NASASun  @TweetAurora 


Two women in cold weather gear hold up sings that say 19 degrees Celsius, N 17.55, E 15.06, (Bamsebu), Happy Thanksgiving! (music notes) Love from Hilde, Sunniva, and Ettra" and "AGU 100."

Message from Bamsebu!
Photo Credit: Hearts in the Ice

Share this post by clicking an icon below!
Share on Google+Share on TumblrShare on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on RedditTweet about this on Twitter

One thought on “Extreme Citizen Science: Seeing the Invisible

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *