Northern Lights: NASA Launch in Norway Kicks Off Two-Year Project to Study Space Weather

Later this month, NASA and a team of international collaborators will launch the first rockets of a two-year mission to better understand the space weather that causes—among other phenomena—aurora, also known as the northern lights.

The two-year project focuses on solar wind. These winds are a component of space weather, the general term for all the ways the sun's antics can affect the space around Earth. Solar wind specifically refers to the constant stream of highly charged particles that speeds off the sun at a rate of a million miles per hour.

Norway is known for its incredible aurora. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

The aurora are by far the most beautiful consequence of space weather. But solar wind and the sun's more dramatic outbursts can cause power outages and interfere with communications satellites, so scientists always want to know more about how they work.

Hence projects like the rockets launching this month as part of the Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment, or AZURE. The rockets will measure solar wind by releasing colorful (but perfectly safe) chemicals. Scientists can then track the clouds of color as they are affected by the wind in order to measure how quickly the charged particles that make up solar wind are flowing and in what direction.

Read more: Giant Solar Storms Battered Earth in 1770, Causing Nearly Constant Aurora

Because of Norway's northern position, it has always seen particularly beautiful and frequent aurora. According to the country's space agency, people in the region have historically been afraid of the phenomenon. The Vikings called them reflections from dead maidens.

The rockets launching this month will leave from a pair of Norwegian sites at Andøya and Svalbard, the northernmost launch sites anywhere in the world. That's crucial for studying the aurora, which tend to be trapped around the poles. In fact, the Norwegian space agency says the Svalbard launch pad is the only site on Earth where rockets can fly straight into solar wind.