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Project Aether -

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Project Aether

Physics guru, Derek Muller travels to Alaska with students and scientists to track and film the
Aurora Borealis.

TRANSCRIPT

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NARRATION

This is the most spectacular natural light show on earth. These images, filmed from the
International Space Station, capture what has drawn people from around the world for centuries. I
have come all the way from Australia to see it for myself.

Dr Derek Muller

Welcome to Alaska. I'm just outside of Fairbanks, and I'm trying to find the Northern Lights, the
Aurora Borealis. As the sun enters the peak of its eleven-year sunspot cycle, it ejects high speed
electrons and protons into space. Deflected by the earth's magnetic field, they collide with the
upper atmosphere near the poles, producing the Aurora. But with spectacular lights also comes the
threat of disruption to our technological infrastructure. Charges streaming in from the sun can
damage satellites, cause extensive power outages and disrupt the flight paths of planes around the
poles. Scientists warn that unless we find out more about solar storms, we are extremely vulnerable
to a geomagnetic catastrophe.

Pilot

That's fed by the glaciers of the Alaskan mountain range, as you can see ...

NARRATION

To further this research, I'm joining a team of scientists, teachers and students. Today we're
flying over the snow-covered mountains of Denali National Park, to test out our gear in spectacular
surrounds.

Dr Derek Muller

So what sort of research are you doing?

Dr Ben Longmier

Yeah, well ah, we typically do high altitude balloon launchers, that's sort of the gist of Project
Aether, for students especially that don't have access to the near-space environment, you know, we
try to open that up. We're trying to further the science of Auroral research and looking at the
details of how sort of the global electrical circuit connects, and how the Aurora plays into that,
and causes this, you know, beautiful aurora and, sort of the physics involved there.

Research Team

Light her up.

NARRATION

Using a full tank of helium, the team inflates a latex weather balloon to two metres in diameter.
This provides enough lift for a six to seven kilogram payload.

Dr Ben Longmier

So we're going to send this up, well about twenty-five kilometres or so.

NARRATION

This will help us assess wind conditions in the upper atmosphere, in preparation for tonight's
launch into the Aurora.

Research Team

One, lift-off!

Dr Ben Longmier

Whoo! That's actually really good buoyancy, just a little bit of lift. When it goes up, this latex
is flexible and so it keeps expanding and expanding and expanding. You go from about six or eight
feet up to about thirty feet diameter. So you know, ten metres, so you're the size of a small house
at that point, you know. Eventually you reach some limit where it just can't keep expanding, and
then it pops. And then you fall back down, and we fall by parachute.

Dr Derek Muller

The recovered footage provides a stunning view from the edge of space. But the real challenge is
launching a weather balloon into the aurora at night. The conditions haven't been ideal because
tonight it's a bit cloudy, a bit hazy. And we've got a moon out which is nearly full, so it makes
it very difficult to spot these northern lights.

Research Team

Three, two, one. Lift-off!

NARRATION

The balloon must rise into the stratosphere at just the right moment to catch the intermittent
Aurora in action. The next morning, we're on the hunt for the payload. From thirty balloons, only
one caught sight of the Aurora. This is the first shot of the Aurora from a weather balloon at
nearly eye-level.

Dr Ben Longmier

For them to build some sort of rig, put a camera on it, touch it, lick it, smell it, send it up a
hundred thousand feet to the edge of space and get it back, um, you know, that's really awesome to
see those pictures, and to see that you know, your device went up there.

NARRATION

With young scientists taking up the challenge, these images and the data gathered provide just a
glimpse into the future of research on the Aurora, and how solar emissions affect our lives.