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50 Miles Up - Ionospheric Research
May 1946 Popular Science

May 1946 Popular Science

May 1946 Popular Science Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Science, published 1872-2021. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Vintage Estes WAC Corporal model rocket kit - RF Cafe

Vintage Estes WAC Corporal model rocket kit.

Prior to the International Geophysical Year (aka IGY, which ended up running for a year and a half), spanning from July 1, 1957, through December 31, 1958, not a lot was known about the upper atmosphere. May 1946, when this article appeared in Popular Science magazine, was less than a year after the end of World War II. During the war a lot was learned about long distance wireless (radio) communications between and across continents and ship to shore. Scientists theorized about the phenomenon of charged particles at high altitudes which, being electrically conductive, could reflect electromagnetic signals so that over the horizon signals could be exchanged.

Coincidence with sunspot activity and aurorae had already been established, but more knowledge was needed. Rocket technology also developed during the war had matured to where instruments could be launched tens of miles high into what came to be called the ionosphere. The Army's WAC Corporal sounding rocket was one of the earlier platforms for such work. Estes Industries made a flying scale model of the WAC Corporal (see thumbnail), one of which I built and launched as a kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Smithsonian Institution has a nicely restored WAC Corporal on display.

50 Miles Up

This Summer "Wac Corporal" Leads Assault on Ionosphere to Increase Our Knowledge of Weather and Radios This Summer "Wac Corporal" Leads Assault on Ionosphere to Increase Our Knowledge of Weather and Radios

By James L. H. Peck and Kenyon Kilbon

"Wac Corporal" is a slender rocket with an important research mission in the ionosphere. She already has streaked to altitudes of nearly 50 miles above her base at the White Sands Proving Ground, Las Cruces, N. M., to send back information from the lower fringe of the ionized layers surrounding the earth.

This summer, the Corporal and her sisters, the Wac Sergeant and Wac Private, are scheduled to zoom into the atmospheric desert lying from 35 to 500 miles above us on voyages that may be as historic as those of Christopher Columbus's three tiny ships in 1492. They will seek data needed to improve radio techniques, forecast the weather, and solve riddles as ancient as human thought.

The Corporal is a half-ton cylinder built of steel, aluminum and magnesium. From the tip of her needle-sharp nose, shaped to penetrate the shock waves that build up at supersonic speeds, she stretches 16 feet 2 inches past three stabilizing fins to the end of her rocket tube. Into her slim barrel, only 12 inches in diameter, are packed radar and secret devices designed to gather and transmit data to the base station during flight. These robots will be her only passengers when her masters step back from the steel framework that holds her upright on a concrete base in the desert and watch a flaming jet carry her into the unknown.

Scientists will send a great barrage of rockets into the upper layers of the atmosphere within the next few months. In addition to the Wacs, they have other highly secret projectiles, and plans call for the use of 25 reconstructed German V-2s. One U. S rocket is reported to be able to reach the 80-milee level. The Wac Corporal already has climbed to 230,000 feet - 43 1/2 miles - and the V-2 is said to have reached heights of 60 to 75 miles over horizontal ranges of 200 or more miles during its wartime missions. With its energy directed toward attaining absolute altitude, V-2 may go higher.

"WAC Corporal" was roaring straight up when this picture was taken by an Army newsreel - RF Cafe

Though the "WAC Corporal" was roaring straight up when this picture was taken by an Army newsreel cameraman at the New Mexico tests, its exhaust trail looks erratic. That is because it was blown by varying winds at different altitudes.

Improved combustion chambers and fuel systems have been devised to fit the rockets for their long-range research flights. Although the details of those actually in use remain secret, patents recently granted to the late rocket-pioneer, Dr. Robert H. Goddard, of Clark University and Roswell, N. M., bring sparkles to experts' eyes. The patents cover a fuel system using gasoline and liquid oxygen, and a combustion chamber that spins like a top as the fuel burns. The fuel system has a small tank of liquid nitrogen enclosed in the oxygen container. The nitrogen is piped through a coil around the combustion chamber as a coolant, returning it to a gaseous condition. The gas is then piped to the gasoline tank, where it is used to maintain pressure equilibrium as the gasoline is withdrawn. The spinning combustion chamber, mounted in ball bearings, provides more rapid and efficient combustion.

Ingenious instruments and methods have been contrived, too, to speed data back to earth from the rockets. Radar can track the projectiles at their supersonic speeds, and sections of a rocket can be detached by radio control to parachute recording instruments down. These will include ozone analyzers and versatile ionization meters which gather facts about cosmic and ultraviolet radiation. Special glass-lined chambers which open and reseal automatically have been built to bring back samples of the upper atmosphere. Some of the rockets also may carry compact, wide-angle infrared cameras to photograph the earth from extreme altitudes.

A few of the rockets may be destroyed by shattering collisions with meteors in the rarefied upper air. From 75,000,000 to 10,000,000,000 meteors are believed to enter the earth's atmosphere daily, at speeds as great as 180,000 miles an hour. Most of them are eliminated by friction in the atmosphere before they strike the earth, but a rocket penetrating to great heights runs the risk of encountering one still massive enough to be destructive.

The evidence brought back by the rocket-borne instruments may affect many of our theories and deductions about the earth's atmosphere. Scientists now picture a series of adjoining layers surrounding the globe. They have designated the known layers by the letters C through F, beginning at the earth's surface, allowance having been made for the possible designation of additional levels below C or above F.

Cross-section drawing shows the layer-cake pattern of the atmospheric regions girdling the earth - RF Cafe

This cross-section drawing shows the layer-cake pattern of the atmospheric regions girdling the earth. Using these layers of ionized air, radio transmission becomes like an electronic game of three-cushion billiards in which low-to-high-frequency waves are "banked" to points beyond the horizon (see inset) - often halfway around the globe. "Wac Corporal" and other super-rockets will explore the make-up of these regions.

The outer layers, D, E and F, show the effects of constant exposure to the bombardment of ultraviolet radiations and charged particles from the sun, the stars and even meteors. If it were not for the atmosphere, the intense radiation would extinguish life on earth, but the coating of air filters and absorbs them to the point of safety. In the process, however, the outer atmosphere takes on the peculiar characteristics that identify the ionosphere.

When the ultraviolet light from the sun encounters the gaseous atoms of the outer air, ionization takes place on a grand scale. The result is not an explosion such as men have obtained from atomic fission, but a steady process of electron detachment and recombination among the atoms of the rarefied atmosphere. Under the bombardment, electrons are torn from their atoms, leaving the outer air filled with free electrons and unstable atoms, or ions, which attract one another and tend to rejoin because of their opposite charges. Where the atmosphere is rare, distances between atoms are relatively great, and recombination does not take place as rapidly as in the denser air of lower altitudes.

This vast ionized region was studied in-dependently in 1902 by an American and a Briton, who found that it reflected radio waves transmitted from the earth. They discovered that the waves, encountering the electrified fields far above the earth, were refracted or bent around to return to earth again, perhaps at great distances from the point of origin. In honor of the two scientists, the ionized region was named the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer.

Later research disclosed that ionization in the upper air did not occur uniformly, but in strata, with the upper layers more in-tensely ionized than those nearer the earth. Radar−like "ionosphere recorders," capable of sending high-frequency radio waves through the electrified regions, revealed the approximate depth of each of the layers, and the present conception of the ionosphere resulted. The high-altitude sounding rockets will bring back more accurate information.

If not already built, a super-rocket capable of reaching the topmost layer is likely to be developed soon. Such a rocket, fired from a vertical launching rack, will streak up to the C layer, from 20 to 35 miles above us. There it may encounter a small amount of ionization, but it will not be in the true ionosphere until it enters the D region, about 35 miles up. Flashing through D, which reaches on to 50 miles, the super-rocket will record ionization strong enough to reflect long-wave radio transmissions of low frequency between 20 and 500 kilocycles during the daylight hours when solar radiation is present. During the hours of darkness, the D layer almost entirely disappears.

Above the D layer, the rocket will penetrate the E region, the original Kennelly-Heaviside Layer, which extends on upward to about 90 miles. Here instruments in the rocket will record ionization that still is relatively weak, although stronger than that in the D layer. During daylight, medium-wave broadcasts between 500 and 1,500 kilocycles - the commercial band on your home radio - are absorbed by the E layer. At night, with the interruption of solar radiation, ionization in this region, too, virtually disappears, permitting long-distance night-time transmission of "broadcast" waves by F layer reflection. During the summer months, the rocket also may encounter a ghost region called the "sporadic E," which appears unpredictably and frequently at altitudes as low as 60 miles.

WAC Corporal sounding rocket drawing - RF Cafe

WAC Corporal sounding rocket drawing by Stewart Rouse

Above the 90-to-100 mile level, the super-rocket will bore into the F region, which scientists believe to be the outermost ionized layer. During daylight, F consists of two. layers, and the rocket will encounter first the F" or Appleton, layer, whose lower limit averages about 100 miles of altitude. Beyond it, starting at 160 to 220 miles, depending upon the season, the rocket will penetrate F2, extending outward to perhaps 500 miles. At night, the two layers merge into a single belt whose lower surface is about 170 miles up. At this altitude, the atmosphere is so rare that recombination of ions and free electrons takes place slowly, leaving sufficient ionization during darkness to reflect the short-wave transmissions of more than 1,500 kilocycles that pass through the lower ionized layers.

Beyond the F region, where the temperature may rise to 1,000° C., the rocket will find incredible cold and silence. The temperature in that stellar space, scientists believe, is always -459°F., the "absolute zero" at which all molecular motion ceases and through which only things that need no conducting medium may pass.

Already the outermost limits of the ionosphere have been left behind by high-frequency radio waves, including those of the ionosphere recorder and the famous "moon radar." One of the most significant features of radar contact with the moon, incidentally, was its demonstration that the ionosphere can be penetrated from the outside by radio waves. This has stimulated research regarding proposals to "bounce" signals off the moon from one city to another on earth.

The sounding rockets, with their unprecedented vertical range, should reveal much about the nature of the ionosphere as a shield protecting the earth from the intense bombardment from outer space. The filtering action of the ionized layers on external radiation is believed to be similar to that affecting radio waves from the earth. Certain of the cosmic radiations are absorbed or reflected by the F and E layers, while others are able to penetrate only in quantities harmless or beneficial to life. Cosmic rays, which may have some influence on life by disturbing hereditary factors in organisms, arrive from unknown distances with force enough to penetrate the ionosphere, but even they are filtered to the point of safety.

Periodically, the ionosphere is disturbed by tremendous magnetic storms. During these cycles, scientists have discovered, there is actual contact between the earth and the sun, which sprays forth great streams of charged particles that reach the earth's outer atmosphere in about 30 hours. The electron stream is believed to gain its terrific velocity from a powerful magnetic field around the gaseous whirlpools sometimes visible as sunspots. The additional ionization caused by these particles in the ionosphere is believed to be the reason for the spectacular aurora borealis and its southern companion, the aurora australis. The sensitive ionization meters in sounding rockets sent aloft during such magnetic storms may record the exact degree of added electronic activity and disclose for the first time the mysterious nature of the aurora.

WAC Corporal over southern U.S. - RF CafeAnalysis of the auroral colors already made from the ground indicates electrical discharges in oxygen and nitrogen particles as the cause of the fireworks, which reach down into the D layer and rise as high as 250 miles. The aurora borealis, incidentally, has shown an unusual shade of green which was once thought to represent a new element. However, this has been positively identified as a radiation from atomic oxygen, this particular color occurring only in the relatively undisturbed conditions characteristic of the outermost portions of the earth's atmosphere.

Another important mission of the sounding rockets will be to measure temperatures at various levels. Estimates of atmospheric structure already have been made under laboratory conditions, but the scientists are anxious to check their results against precise measurements by instruments borne into the upper air.

Whether the rockets will provide the answers to all of the mysteries remains to be seen, but science is placing great faith in them. Work continues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, where civilian specialists and Army ordnance experts developed the Wac Corporal and her secret sisters as a part of the "Ordcit," (Ordnance-California Institute of Technology) program under the general direction of Dr. Theodore von Karmen, aided by Col. B. S. Mesick. The aviation industry is involved in the picture, too, for the Corporal was constructed at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Santa Monica, California.

The assault on the ionosphere does not depend on the rockets alone. Intensive research into ionospheric phenomena is under way in earth-bound laboratories, including the Interservice Radio Propagation Laboratory at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, Harvard University's Cruft Laboratory, the Cosmic Ray and Radiation Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the laboratories of the Department of Research in Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and in laboratories in England, Canada and Australia. The Army already is operating a world network of observation posts established during the war to study ionospheric conditions for the benefit of long-range radio communication. Science has just started going "out of this world" to probe the make-up of the heavens.

 

 

Posted November 15, 2023

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