Into the wild
Toward the Light: Chasing the Alaskan Aurora with Project Aether
Editor’s Note: When we think of exploration, it’s easy to envision the archetypical rugged explorer, battle-hardened by dozens of foot journeys to the Poles or the gurus manning the offices of private space exploration. But how about our youth? Is the spirit of exploration and scientific discovery alive and well? We may not be able to answer that question today, but far from the multiplayer sessions of Call of Duty, there are people who are looking into the beyond and looking to bring that energy to classrooms.
Recently, Gear Patrol was invited to join a group of young rocket scientists along with their grade school educators known as Project Aether to witness their interpretation of terrestrial-based space exploration. Their focus: the Stratosphere by way of the Aurora Borealis. Dispatching GP contributor Justin Gural to embed himself with the group, his story and photo essay prove that not only is the spirit of adventure thriving with youth, but combined with some readily accessible gear and innovative thinking, also making its way into classrooms across America.
Read Justin’s story, photo essay and timelapse video after the jump.
When it comes to the roots of space exploration, nothing documents the space race quite like the black and white imagery from the 1960s. Showcasing one of the most definitive moments in the progression of our human race — going where no man had traveled before — not only captivated the minds and attentions of the scientific elite, but also the national public. It also required the groundbreaking technology.
Today, both the equipment and underlying intentions have changed dramatically since the golden days, but something that still hasn’t changed are the childhood dreams. The dreams of staring deeply into the night sky and wondering, “What’s out there, and why is our spinning rock so special?” After all, we’re the only ones, right?
We’ll leave that debate for another day.
Once only within the reach of the highest levels of scientists and astronomers, nowadays — thanks to any amount of curiosity, a sliver of engineering know-how and a few specific over-the-counter gadgets — just about anyone can get a glimpse of space for themselves. The choice of spacecraft preference for DIY space explorers is undoubtedly the high-altitude weather balloons, which can carry payloads over 100,000 feet into the middle of the Stratosphere. And, thanks to the advancements of compact, sturdy video devices, we’ve all seen the video footage go viral –- whether it’s a LEGO man, rubber chicken or can of cheap beer.
A particular group of young rocket scientists and grade school educators, collectively known as Project Aether, isn’t fit with leaving all the viral glory to rubber chickens surfing the atmosphere on weather balloons. Their pursuit is focused on bringing this infectious fervor into the classroom and inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers. It’s both noble and exciting.
What first began as a, “Hey, we can do that better” moment, has since grown into an organization providing real-world scenarios for students and schools across the country. Over the past two years, and countless payload launch trial and errs, they’ve created a turnkey package that includes tested and approved equipment, and curriculum for science classes to plan, launch, retrieve, document and study their very own orbital.
Aether has a handful of pilot programs activated at schools across the country, one of which we had the privilege of witnessing firsthand during a video conference session with the class. There’s nothing quite like seeing children inspired about something like space. In this case, even through video conference you could feel the children’s excitement for this project — and their physic assignment (yes, physic) — as they reported their results and experiences.
School has come a long way since lame geometry assignments and afternoon kickball.
Basecamp: Fairbanks, AK
Set up on the outskirts of downtown Fairbanks, the unassuming exterior of the Project Aether household is in full mellow mud-season livery thanks to warmer than normal weather.
Inside, things are a different story with a little more edge, and a few more frayed nerves between the different workstations and groups planning their own particular missions: science, business, media.
The dozens upon dozens of cameras, housings, straps and DIY riggings may seem like a POV camera aficionado’s dream, but by the end of the mission not a single camera wasn’t in full use.
Planning both ends of Project Aether’s mission, a roundtable is balanced between science (foreground) and education (background). Led by plasma rocket scientist Ben Longmier, with support from grad students “Hans and Franz” from Texas A&M, the teams has partnered with tech companies, including POV maker GoPro, to fully document the atmosphere –- including the aurora and its plasma activity. Liz Henriquez and Rosanna Satterfield lead the educational programming and outreach, bringing the project full circle and into the classroom.
Frans Ebersohn, aka “the Franz”, is seen here busily tracking the aurora forecast for our Alaskan airspace. As half of an entertaining graduate student duo from Texas A&M, hence “Hans and Franz,” the duo, known for their comedy, added German imbued levity to the program.
Much like the ocean swell, which surfers track and forecast for predicting conditions at local breaks, scientists track solar swells –- blasting through space from the sun — in the form of plasma storms. If you’re keen on tracking the aurora’s swell, be sure to visit this site
John Guthery, aka “Hans”, isn’t all German accents and unflattering sweat suits though. Here, he’s scoping out different payload landing zones while preparing the circuit boards which manage and store all of the data measured during the airborne experiments.
Meanwhile: Ben Longmier tracks the trajectory mapping for a recent launch on the group’s iPad, showing how it drifts into the unpredictable upper currents and landed inside the boundaries of Denali National Park. Retrieval for this particular payload proved particularly challenging; not necessarily because of the terrain, but rather because of the approvals needed from the Parks Department to fly and land in the park.
Preparing for a video conference call with a 6th grade pilot program in Arizona, Henriquez reviews footage from a previously-recovered payload that reached 98,000 feet, well into the heart of the Stratosphere.
Without fuel, there’s no fire. This afternoon, New Jersey school teacher Laura Nardomarino is manning mess duty, prepping a cabin feast to keep the cerebs of the roundtable firing on all cylinders.
Weathered by a space flight and retrieval mission, this bird’s frame has since been retired. The Project Aether team has developed a streamlined production process for assembling and launching DIY payloads into the atmosphere. Visit projectaether.org to find all the ingredients needed to build your very own for around $1,500.
The Launch: Murphy Dome, AK
Preparing the multitude of spacecraft onsite at the launch spot, Longmier and the Project Aether team assemble each payload out of the bay of a rented SUV, which doubles as a makeshift, all-in-one Kennedy Space Center and Houston Mission Control.
Final touches include the addition of an American flag and SPACE t-shirt to ensure scientific and diplomatic immunity. Previous landing zones have included private property, which, in the Alaska bush, has lead to unpredictable introductions with property owners. Most of which, thankfully, didn’t greet search teams with double-barrel shotguns.
Once the focus turned towards inflation, the nerves of the group rival what we imagine Kennedy Space Center was like during the ignition phase of a Shuttle launch. Balloons in this scenario are typically filled to 1/3 of their size, roughly six to eight feet wide, to accommodate for the high-altitude burst when it reaches 20-plus feet in diameter.
Cameras on? Check. GPS transmitting? Check. Radio broadcasting? Check. Gyroscope in motion? Check. Media jockeying for angles? Check. Did we mention the nerves? Check. One last system check of the gear and gadget list before liftoff.
“Three… two… one…” shouts the group, as Longmier releases the payload into the night sky –- which, at the moment of flight, happens to be blanketed by the aurora.
Situated northeast of Fairbanks atop Murphy Dome, this site was selected due to its expansive and unrestricted skyline. The aurora, which has traveled further south than the previous night enables the team to launch directly into the overhead plasma-fueled light show.
Looking upwards at around 90-degrees, this particular tube-shaped aurora came alive just after the launch. These formations will come and go along the path of the aurora, as it sways to and fro like a monstrous theatrical curtain blown by the wind.
Not all of the documenting glory of this mission was left to the reigning king-of-atmospheric-flight GoPro though. From the ground, it is recommended to utilize full-frame sensor technology –- as shown here on a Canon 5D Mark II — in order to capture the morphing light and surrounding darkness with little-to-no image noise. Tip: don’t forget the tripod and intervalometer, without both your aurora timelapse would otherwise be a garbled mess of shaky photos.
Retrieval: Backcountry, AK
When it comes to retrieval there are several options for retrieval. Option One: Helicopter. Traveling by chopper into the remote Alaskan backcountry is the quickest and typically least challenging mode of retrieving GPS-pinging payloads. Unless of course, you’re negotiating with the National Parks Service over flight plans into restricted airspace.
Just another day in the office for Quicksilver Air; a room with a view, FAA guidelines and a map for avoiding restricted airspace.
In typical fashion, the GoPro’s never missed a moment for collecting footage. Here, our pilot gets into the game too. In advance of the mission, spending valuable time with the GoPro production team led to some colorful conversations about camera settings, as well as a few customization tricks that we’ll be bringing to future video shoots.
The underbelly of the bird upon liftoff, and of course your gratuitous, wide angle heli-adventure shot.
Retrieval Option Two: The Original SUV. The preferred mode of transportation for backcountry settlers in Alaska, nothing makes sled-bred dogs more happy than tying up and pushing forth. Due to dense forest landing zones, the expedition wasn’t able to make a retrieval via dog sled, but nothing wakes the senses away from Strato-hunting quite like an afternoon bombing a thinning snowpack via sled.
The excitement of the dogs was infectious. While observing the trainers set up their team, each dog’s energy seemingly grew in anticipation as the next was hooked in. With hardly any effort, the sleds were off and running.
Sitting in either sitting the sled’s bucket or skiing on the trailer offer distinct advantages and disadvantages. Fracture-inducing barrel rolls of the trailer, or dodging a wake of dog poo and snow. The choice is yours.
With temperatures in the 50s and the soft, Alaskan spring snowpack under our team’s paws, we covered just a sliver of the sledding networks that interweave throughout the fringes of Fairbanks. As noted by our guides who traveled, as children, to school via dog sled.
Retrieval Option Three: Bushwhacking via Snowshoe. After driving down an unrecognizable highway away from Fairbanks, the lead vehicle’s hazard signals indicated we were close to the drop. Longmier gauges the best starting point from the road. From there, we maintain a “five-to-ten degrees to the left” angle from the sun, as indicated here. Using a SPOT GPS locator as a beacon, and Longmier’s arm as a compass.
A first for nearly half of the group, snowshoeing can be an exhaustive workout if you’re overdressed not to mention piloting a long trek with flapjacks under one’s feet. For the rest of the group, the backcountry served as an excellent opportunity to take in the Alaskan wilderness and test our navigation skills. We crossed a number of moose tracks along the way keeping in mind that a certain hungry, hibernating species was nearing the end of its long winter siesta.
Being one of first to lay eyes on the resting payload I boom out “We have a visual!” (admittedly caught up in the moment) with elation quickly striking the rest of the group traveling in the bootpack behind. Longmier wastes little time to dive into inspection mode. This is one of the easier recoveries, not requiring 20-mile snowmobile ride (with break-down) or a 30-foot tree climb. The chute, which Longmier’s mother sews herself, is caught in a 5-foot tree, and the balloon and payload lying prepared for our cameras.
As we trek back to the road, about a mile from the drop zone, the golden skyline barely budges along the horizon. One of the longest sunsets I’ve ever witnessed, the sky glows for hours drenching the photogenic landscape with impossibly gorgeous light. Megapixels are logged.
Travel Notes: Fairbanks, Alaska
It wouldn’t be fair to Fairbanks to suggest their residents live in the middle of nowhere. Rather, they’re on the edge of the middle of nowhere, much like the aurora lives on edge of the atmosphere. In fact, this is the precise reason that Project Aether selected Fairbanks for its launchpad. Long known as one of the premier viewing zones in North America, the city is also full of modern creature comforts not found in more remote viewing areas such as Canada’s Yukon or Northwest Territories.
If you’re traveling from the west coast, it’s typically a two-flight hop to Fairbanks. Not the case for east-coasters though, where the connections can be as many as four depending upon your luck with booking and travel karma.
Pikes Landing is set on the eastern edge of Fairbanks, Alaska, and its location on the Chena River is a prime meeting place for boaters during the summer months, and cars, snowmachines and dog sleds during the winter. Yes, cars and trucks drive on the river during the winter. This particular bend in the river is home to Pike’s Waterfront Lodge and Landing Restaurant, where you can belly up to a rustic bar in Captain’s Lounge serving local whiskey and fish n’ chips under elk antlers, or dive into a the infamous Sunday brunch buffet at the Binkley Room which proudly boasts “18-feet of dessert”.
For any trip where you’re expecting to get out and play, whether it’s at the resort or off piste, it’s always a good idea to set your bearings on the local gear shop. Here, Beaver Sports was fully equipped to provide support no matter the needs –snowshoes, skis and boards, fatbikes, navigation, etc. Proving the world is indeed small, one of the shop reps is from the next town over from me in Vermont. She is studying natural resources at University of Alaska Fairbanks, the flagship campus of the University of Alaska System and a source of the vibrant youth presence in Fairbanks.
Nowadays, what is travel without sharing the story with a flick of the finger on Instagram. It’s short, sweet, and lends it’s success to the notion that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Here are a few from along the way. (Clockwise from top right: stuffy greeting from the FAI terminal, nice racks at Captains Lounge, fatbikes in the motherland at Beaver Sports, when a two-hour SEA delay turns into four.)