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Scientists, Students Study Space Storms in THEMIS Project

High school students and teachers in Alaska are helping NASA scientists collect data for a mission that aims to learn more about the space weather that causes the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

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  • BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent:

    For centuries, scientists have been fascinated by auroras, the mysterious lights that blaze across the sky in the far northern and southern regions of the Earth.

    Some things about the auroras are known: that they happen when the sun blows storms of electrons toward the planet and interfere with the Earth's magnetic field. Those same storms can also disrupt communications, affect satellites, and even make astronauts sick.

    But a lot of questions about auroras remain. Some scientists have come to an out-of-the-way place to look for answers: Petersburg, Alaska, and the playground behind Mr. Trautman's 11th-grade geology class.

  • VICTOR TRAUTMAN, Science Teacher:

    This is the real deal. This is real science. And what it's really trying to do is to determine the effects that we find the sun has on Earth. And, really, what would happen without our Earth's magnetic field, the Earth wouldn't be here. We'd lose our moisture. We'd lose our atmosphere. We would look like Mars or we'd look like the moon.


    In February, NASA and scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, launched five satellites to find out exactly where the storms that cause auroras originate. Spaced out in different orbits, the satellites measure smaller solar bursts called substorms that disrupt the Earth's magnetic field. They can also cause the beautiful shimmering and dancing the auroras do in the nighttime sky.

    But the scientists need to make other measurements closer to the Earth's surface, so magnetometers, Earth-based data collectors, were placed in Petersburg and nine other northern locations. Petersburg, a town of 2,600, was chosen because it's remote and far away from magnetic interference found in densely populated areas.

    Scientists also thought it would be a rare chance to involve rural kids in a real-world science experiment, kids like Carl Hernandez, who plays drums in the pep band. He's been watching the auroras all of his life.

  • CARL HERNANDEZ, Student:

    Usually over the mountains, you'll see kind of a faint coloring. And it's usually kind of starts off as a light green or blue, and then, I mean, these ribbons of light will just light up the whole sky. They come out, and they're just sort of flowing, and dancing, and it's really beautiful.