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Engadget goes to Alaska... cultivating the next generation of American scientists

By Tim Stevens  posted Jul 16th 2012 12:00PM

At first it was faint -- a blurry smear bisecting the sky above, running roughly north to south and flanked by a second, even more indistinct line to the west. Soon, though, both lines began to change, coalescing and intensifying into bright green streaks impossible to miss and difficult to ignore.

As the night began to expire and the morning matured, those lines grew brighter and brighter and then, without warning, they started to dance. Numbing feet and chilly fingers forgotten, bundled-up onlookers looked skyward to gasp and laugh out loud as the evergreen, spectral curtains far above began to waver and move, blown by a fickle celestial wind. Waves traveled from north to south and back as the luminescent lines above twisted, forming glowing knots of purple and red before slowly spreading out, covering the night sky in green, bright enough that even the snow-colored landscape glowed like an emerald wonderland. Gradually, the motion stopped and slowed, seeming to stall in the sky above, exhausted before -- encore; the heavenly dance began anew.

As locals and tourists alike developed stiff necks while admiring the show, completely enraptured by the aurora borealis, members of Project Aether couldn't be bothered to look up. They were scrambling on the ground, feverishly assembling and tweaking two rigs that were also destined to create a show in the sky. The team's creations were made of carbon-fiber tubes, exotic material conventionally lashed together with PVC junctions, string and duct tape. A lot of duct tape.

The tape was mostly for attaching the payload, blue insulated lunchboxes of the type often seen stuffed in the back of corporate refrigerators. Inside were not leftovers, rather a block of pink insulating foam with cavities carved for all manner of things: patriotic flags, plastic Easter eggs, scientific equipment and....

Screenshot > Engadget