NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC
Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA

February 6, 1998


Starting Feb. 12, NASA will launch a two-month campaign in Puerto Rico to study space weather using rockets and ground instruments, including the world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The project is expected to provide information that ultimately will help improve the reliability of radio and satellite communications.

Using a temporary range at Tortuguero on the north coast of Puerto Rico, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA, is scheduled to launch 11 suborbital rockets between Feb. 12 and Apr. 9, 1998, as part of a project called Coqui Dos. The project is a continuation of a 1992 project called El Coqui, named after a species of native frog which is an ecological and cultural symbol of Puerto Rico.

"NASA, in association with several universities and other organizations, will launch these rockets to make measurements of electrical and turbulent layers that occur in the ionosphere, approximately 62 miles above the surface of the Earth," said Miguel Larson, campaign scientist from Clemson University, SC.

"People tend to think that space is a quiet place with no activity. However, over the years we have come to realize that the contrary is true," said Mike Kelley, a professor at Cornell University, Ithica, NY, and principal investigator for two of the rocket launches.

In fact, the layers that are the focus of the Coqui Dos study are very active features that are responsible for disruptions of radio, television, and satellite communications.

The activity is the result of the interaction between "space weather" and the Earth's atmosphere, according to Kelley, who also was the campaign scientist for NASA rocket launches from Puerto Rico in 1992. Space weather refers to the complex interactions of the Solar wind (the fast-moving stream of particles emanating from the Sun), the Sun's magnetic field and the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. The 1992 project had a 100 percent success rate and ten scientific papers have been published based on the data obtained, Kelley said.

Just as studies of the lower atmosphere in the 1960s led to our current understanding of weather and improved weather forecasts, the Coqui Dos studies are expected to lead to a better understanding of the ionosphere so that we can predict activity in this region in the future, Kelley said.

Puerto Rico was selected as the launch site due to the availability of the National Science Foundation's National Astronomy and Ionospheric Center. The Arecibo radio telescope provides unique capabilities for detecting the activity within the electrical layers. Such information is needed for both deciding when to launch the rockets and for the interpretation of the rocket measurements after the flight. The Arecibo radio telescope is the largest in the world and is an essential part of the scientific mission, Larsen said.

During the Coqui Dos campaign, a total of 11 launches will be carried out as part of six separate sets of measurements. All the launches will be during the nighttime hours when ionospheric instabilities are present in the high altitude region above Puerto Rico. In some cases, two or three rocket launches may occur in one night.

Five of the rockets have payloads containing small amounts of the chemical trimethyaluminum (TMA), which will be released in the ionosphere at an altitude between 50 and 93 miles altitude. When TMA is released it forms a cloud that is luminescent for 10 to 20 minutes. These clouds can be tracked visually and with camera equipment to determine where the atmospheric turbulent layers occur. The milky-white clouds should be visible within several hundred miles of the launch site, across most of Puerto Rico and perhaps on some of the neighboring islands. The harmless by-products disperse for thousands of miles before settling into the upper atmosphere.

Three payloads being launched are chemical only, two payloads contain TMA and scientific instruments and six payloads contain instruments only.

The rockets will be launched over the Atlantic Ocean to altitudes of from 71 to 236 miles, and will fall in the ocean beyond 30 miles off shore. The launches, which typically will occur between 7 and 11 p.m., should be visible from most of Puerto Rico, especially along the northern coast and San Juan. The flights will last approximately 10 to 15 minutes each.

Further information on the Puerto Rico project, including a schedule of the rocket launches, is available on the Coqui Dos home page.

The Coqui Dos project is being conducted under the suborbital Sounding Rocket Program, which is managed at Wallops for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. The program consists of approximately 25 sounding rockets launched each year from various locations worldwide.

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