Offshore oil drilling could hamper Arctic aurora research

The risk of rocket parts falling on rigs and workers may limit launches.


On dark, clear winter nights in Fairbanks, Alaska, the northern lights often arc across the sky like curtains blown by a cosmic breeze. Some evenings, that spectacle becomes a scientific laboratory, when researchers launch rockets into the aurora borealis to study the forces that form it and how they impact the planet. The rockets fly from their pads outside Fairbanks and pass into the lights. Then they break apart, their pieces tumbling back to Earth, as far north as the Arctic Ocean.

Now, a federal push for more offshore Arctic oil drilling is threatening that research. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is planning to sell drilling leases in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s northern coast, next year. But NASA officials are raising concerns over the planned lease sale: Expanded drilling would mean more people and property at risk of being hit by a motor or payload plummeting from the sky, which could limit rocket launches.

The northern lights dance across the nighttime sky above a cabin in Alaska.

The northern lights appear when high-energy particles released by the sun, called solar wind, crash into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. That can create disturbances and electrical currents strong enough to disrupt power grids, radio communications and GPS satellites. They can also be tricky to study. So scientists at Poker Flat Research Range outside Fairbanks shoot rockets carrying instruments to measure electrical fields, air turbulence and other phenomena hundreds of miles into auroras, hoping to learn more about how they work. One study, for example, measured the nitric oxide produced by the dancing lights, which can sink through the atmosphere and harm the ozone layer.

Thanks to its northern latitude and plentiful lights displays, Poker Flat is perfectly situated for those studies, said Giovanni Rosanova, chief of NASA’s Sounding Rockets Program Office at Wallops Flight Facility, which provides rockets and support at the range. However, Poker Flat is hemmed in on either side — by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to the west, and the Canadian border to the east — meaning rockets must be tilted so they’ll fall to the north when they come down, toward the Beaufort Sea. “If we were further limited by restrictions offshore, that would reduce our launch capability and possibly cause scientists to miss a perfect opportunity,” Rosanova said.

A rocket launches into an aurora from Poker Flat Research Range near Fairbanks, Alaska. The facility is owned by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and scientists from the university, NASA and other institutions conduct research there.

The agency’s first priority is safety, said Josh Bundick, a program manager at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. “NASA stands down when there’s something we’re trying to protect,” whether that’s a village, a pipeline or an oil production platform. “If we get too many of those things that we have to protect, we just can’t do our mission.”

In April, NASA sent a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management outlining those concerns. The bureau is considering about 65 million acres, an area larger than the state of Oregon, for inclusion in the 2019 Beaufort Sea lease sale. It’s a stark change from 2016, when President Barack Obama closed most of the Beaufort Sea to offshore development.

As lease sale preparations move forward, representatives from both agencies say they plan to work together to find ways to keep rockets from Poker Flat in the air. Solutions could include lease provisions that give NASA the ability to request drill rig evacuations during a launch, for example, or structural reinforcements to platforms so they can survive a piece of rocket crashing into them.

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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