Smack in the middle of Alaska is a research facility that studies a wonderful mix of rockets and auroras. The Poker Flat Research Range is comprised of over 5,000 acres of science-y goodness, using rocketry to take a closer look at the Aurora Borealis, the magnetic field, and the ozone.
The land, which sits beneath the normal path of an aurora, has been used to observe the colorful natural phenomena since the 1920s. In the 1940s the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks took control of the site, and they brought rockets with them. The facilities as they are known today weren’t completed until the 1970s, with multiple on-site facilities like riometers, magnetometers, and other pieces of precision equipment that allow the data gained from the rockets to be studied on the premises.
Rather than military grade missiles, the researchers use “sounding rockets” which are projectiles loaded to the gills with research instrumentation. These are fired up into the atmosphere to a level that sits somewhere between where weather balloons reach and where space begins, allowing for a detailed look into how the Earth’s atmosphere interacts with the vacuum of space.
Today there are five separate launch pads and an ever-evolving array of scientific facilities. As the state of research evolves and the range of interests spreads, the PFRR continues to grow with it.