Hacking the Ionosphere, for Science

Imagine what it must have been like for the first human to witness an aurora. It took a while for our species to migrate from its equatorial birthplace to latitudes where auroras are common, so it was a fairly recent event geologically speaking. Still, that first time seeing the shimmers and ribbons playing across a sky yet to be marred by light pollution must have been terrifying and thrilling, and like other displays of nature’s power, it probably fueled stories of gods and demons. The myths and legends born from ignorance of what an aurora actually represents seem quaint to most of us, but it was as good a model as our ancestors needed to explain the world around them.

Our understanding of auroras needs to be a lot deeper, though, because we now know that they are not only a beautiful atmospheric phenomenon but also a critical component in the colossal electromagnetic system formed by our planet and our star. Understanding how it works is key to everything from long-distance communication to keeping satellites in orbit to long-term weather predictions.

But how exactly does one study an aurora? Something that’s so out of reach and so evanescent seems like it would be hard to study. While it’s not exactly easy science to do, it is possible to directly study auroras, and it involves some interesting technology that actually changes them, somehow making the nocturnal light show even more beautiful.

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Building a rocket to launch your project into space

At Hackaday, we’re familiar with projects that say they’re exploring space. Most of the time, these are high altitude balloons that ascend up to 100,000 feet. Sure, this is very, very high, but it’s only about 1/3rd of the way to lower limit of what can be called space at 100 km or 62 miles. Now, we’re seeing the first steps towards embedding Arduinos, cameras, and other goodies into the celestial spheres with the NE-1 Rocket, a project by [Jonathan McCabe] in Madison, Wisconsin.

The goal of the NE-1 rocket is to launch a 5kg payload into a suborbital trajectory to a height of 120 kilometers. From there, the payload – be it an electronic, biological, or simple imaging experiment – will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before falling back to Earth under a parachute.

Getting into space without the help of a government space agency has been done a few times before, mostly with solid-fuel rockets. [Jonathan]’s system uses a liquid-fueled engine, fed with┬ánitrous oxide as the oxidizer and a secret self-pressurizing liquid fuel. These are fed into an engine that uses a ‘cold wall vortex’ to cool the engine instead circulating fuel around the combustion chamber as in traditional engines.

[Jonathan] has already done a few static tests with a half-scale engine, and he already has a lot of the very hard-to-source components in his lab. It’s a promising project. It falls right in line with the ‘Hackaday Space Program’ idea we’ve been kicking around, and we’d be more than happy to see this project get off the ground