Northern Lights Research


The nearest town to Icehotel, Kiruna, is Sweden’s northernmost town. Since the mid 1900s, it has been an internationally recognized center for research related to space and Earth.

It’s location, close to the magnetic North Pole, sparse population yet high standard of infrastructure are the basic factors that have caused research to prosper here. Government agencies and scientists from around the world come here to use the facilities to test their instruments, launch satellites and collect data.

Kiruna - overview
Photo Johan Ylitalo
Photo Johan Ylitalo

Space capital 

Organizations within space research located or head quartered in Kiruna:

  • The Swedish Institute for Space Physics
  • Luleå University of Technology
  • Eiscat (multi-national not-for-profit association for radar research)
  • Esrange (European Space and Sounding Rocket Range)
  • ESA (European Space Agency)
  • Sweden’s only dedicated Space High School

Collecting the data

Research is conducted on what causes the Northern Lights, how often the grand Northern Lights appear and so on. Since the particles causing the northern lights remain in the atmosphere, they never reach the ground in order for researchers to collect data from them.

So, trying to learn new things about these particles, we need to collect the data while they are still in space using instruments that are developed to be sent to the upper atmosphere or even further. A sounding rocket can be loaded with instruments for this, they can reach up to 1000 km and measure for about 10 minutes.


Esrange, about 30 km from Icehotel, launches many sounding rockets for Northern Lights research.

When doing research that is too far or requires more time to collect data than what is possible with a sounding rocket, you need satellites. The complex nature and large costs associated with developing satellites means these are usually collaborative projects between several governments. The instruments transform data to radio signals and sends it to Earth. The receiver can usually only reach the satellite on parts of their orbit, and in-between, the instrument saves data internally.

Benefits compared to space

Since Kiruna is located close to the magnetic pole, receivers based in Kiruna can reach their senders more often than for example a research project set up near the Equator. By effect, it means the instruments can collect more data as and send it more frequently. Collecting data from the ground is also important and has some benefits compared to space. When collecting data from Earth, it means you can use one single location, and if an instrument breaks down, you can repair it. Eiscat uses radar instruments to support government agencies from around the world with this type of research based in Kiruna.