About Fredrick Backman

Fredrick Backman is a graduate student in history of science and ideas at Umeå University in Sweden. He is working on a dissertation about the history of the so-called space town Kiruna in the far north of Sweden. For more information and contact details, please see: http://www.umu.se/sok/english/staff-directory/view-person?languageId=1&uid=frba0007&guise=anst1

Space town, Kiruna, Sweden

Kiruna is a municipality and population centre the far north of Sweden known mostly for the large iron ore mine, the traditional Saami culture and the sublime nature, but also for the recent space physics research and space technology, and it is even referred to as ”Space Town Kiruna” by officials, media and the public.

Because Kiruna is situated in the auroral zone (aurora borealis or northern lights), it is an ideal location for doing scientific studies of the aurora. The first research station was established in the early 1900s by the lake Vassijaure close to the Norwegian border west of Kiruna. The building soon burned down and the scientific activities were later moved to a building in Abisko, further east along the railway line. Here, the activities continued into the 1940s, when it was decided that a new research station was needed. However, Abisko is still today a natural research station, with a focus on arctic science in general.

Kiruna Geophysical Observatory was established in 1957, about 8 km east of Kiruna town centre, by the E10 road close to the airport. KGO has been in operation ever since (auroral measurements actually started in 1948 at the same place). KGO has expanded and changed name to the Institute for Space Physics, also known as Kiruna Space Campus, as they are also doing teaching at university level. The institute is open for visitors. They have a restaurant and a little shop in the reception where you can buy souvenirs. You can reach it by bus from Kiruna town, alternatively rent a car or a bicycle.

In 1966, the Esrange sounding rocket range was inaugurated about 45 km east of Kiruna. Esrange is a service facility where scientists and engineers can go to perform experiments with rockets and balloons, or do satellite communications. There is a hotel there. Esrange is civilian and mostly open for the public, but a large part of the area is off limits when they do rocket launches, and an area around near the launch site is permanently fenced.

The rocket impact field is very large (5,600 sq. km) and covers the entire north of Kiruna municipality to the Norwegian and Finnish borders. You should not go there unless you are certain there is no rocket launch going on, but there are 19 security shelters scattered around the field where people can go to be protected in case there is a rocket launch going on. The area is not inhabited but the Saami people use it for their reindeer husbandry, and hunters and fishers are sometimes in the area. There are almost no roads there, but the area can be reached via the E10 and E45 roads.

The Esrange launch site

The Esrange launch site, by Gaelen Marsden. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

One of the security shelters at Esrange.

One of the security shelters at Esrange, by Gerrit. Image licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The main site of Esrange can only be reached via the E10 road, and the road to the north-east via Jukkasjärvi. It is a bit complicated to get there, because there are no public transports, so either you must rent a car or go by taxi, alternatively if you are lucky you can book a bus ride with Kiruna’s tourist information, but they only drive if there is a minimum amount of travellers. I recommend that you also phone Esrange in advance to make sure they can receive you. They have a small museum and a souvenir shop, but you must book in advance to get entrance and be guided there.

There are also other facilities in the “space town”. Some are easy to reach but others are more hidden. Scattered around in the municipality (and outside) are a number of radar antennas and large parabolic antennas. The large EISCAT dish is clearly visible from the E10 main road. The ALIS auroral imaging system consists of a number of sites around Kiruna and neighbouring municipalities.

In Kiruna town you can find a rocket monument close to the bus station. You can also find the secondary “space school” (“Rymdgymnasiet”) and a building known as the Space House (“Rymdhuset”) which also has a history of relevance to the Space Town. Just outside Kiruna town you also find the Bengt Hultqvist Observatory.

If you want to see the northern lights, Kiruna is an ideal place but keep in mind that the aurora can only be seen during the dark nights, and Kiruna has very bright summer nights (because of the midnight sun) so you must go there in the autumn, winter or spring if you want to see the aurora. In Abisko, you can find the Aurora Sky Station but the auroras can be seen from anywhere, depending on the weather and the solar magnetic activities.

While in Kiruna, you may also be interested in visiting the LKAB mine (south-west of the centre) or the Ice Hotel (on the road to Esrange). If you like wildlife or hiking, you may also be interested in the 400 km King’s Trail (”Kungsleden”) hiking track which starts in Abisko. Kiruna is a paradise for wildlife experiences.

Of related interest to historians of science and technology are also Kronogård and Nausta in Jokkmokk municipality. This is where the first rocket launch was done in 1961, with further experiments until 1964. Be warned that this is close to a military missile test range and sneaking around in the forest with a camera may not be a good idea. You don’t need to worry about this in Kiruna (other than falling rocket debris).

Further reading

Fredrick Backman, Making Place for Space : A history of “Space Town” Kiruna 1943-2000. Dissertation in History of Science and Ideas at Umeå University, Sweden, (2015).

Wormbs, Nina and Källstrand, Gustav, A Short History of Swedish Space Activities, ESA report HSR-39, Noordwijk : Eur. Space Agency, 2007.

“Swedish Space Corporation 25 years, 1972-1997”, http://www.zenker.se/Space/Jubilee/jubilee-a.shtml [2013-06-29]

The Torne Valley and the flattening of the earth, Sweden and Finland

The Torne Valley on the border between Sweden and Finland played a central role in the 18th century debate on the shape of the earth. A recommended starting point is the twin town Haparanda/Tornio (Haparanda is on the Swedish side, and Tornio on the Finnish side).

In the early 18th century, there was a debate among natural philosophers regarding the true shape of the earth. Isaac Newton and his followers believed the earth was slightly flattened at the poles, while Descartes and his supporters suggested it was prolonged at the poles. In order to find out which theory was correct, the French Academy of Sciences decided to send one expedition close to the equator and another close to the north pole. Each expedition would measure the length of a degree of the meridian, and by comparing the results, it would be possible to see whether Newton or Descartes was right. The expedition to the equator ended up in Mitad del Mundo in Peru (present day Ecuador), and the northbound expedition ended up in Torne Valley in Sweden (back then Finland was part of Sweden). The expedition to Sweden took place in 1736-37 and was led by the mathematician Pierre-Luis Moreau de Maupertuis. The Swedish astronomers Anders Celsius and Anders Hellant were also involved, as well as a team of assistants and workers.

The measurement of the meridian was done by using the triangulation method which has been common in geodesy. Starting in the town of Tornio, Maupertuis and his team travelled about 106 km up the Torne valley, where they set up a triangulation network consisting of eleven observation points on mountain tops. The southernmost point was the church tower in Tornio and the northenmost point was the Kittisvaara mountain. The base line of the triangulation network was 14,5 km and was set up on the ice of the Torne River between the Luppiovaara and Aavasaksa mountains. The base line was measured using eight spruce poles, each 30 feet in length, where two teams did the measurements by using four poles each. In the rest of the triangulation network, each observation point was constructed by clear-cutting the top of each mountain and then setting up a cone-shaped signal made of barked tree trunks, so that each signal could be observed from the neighbouring observation points. The angles between the observation points were measured using quadrants. Once they had measured the base line and all angles between the obervation points, they could calculate the length of the sides of each triangle. In order to find the direction of the meridian in relation to the triangles, they used a Graham zenith sector to measure the height of a star in the constellation Dragon from the end points in Kittisvaara and Tornio.

Map showing the triangulation network

Map showing the triangulation network.
Image in Public Domain.

Torne Valley was rather sparsely populated at this time, with only a few farms along the river banks in addition to the smaller villages of Pello and Turtola. When they were not busy working, the French crew socialised with the people, and there is even a romantic aspect of this expedition –two local girls, the Planström sisters, ended up travelling to France.

Even though the scientific result of the expedition was criticized for flaws, it was still a success, and when the Torne meridian degree was compared to the one in Peru, it was in favour of Newton’s theory. To further establish the true shape of the earth, another measurement of the meridian was done between 1816 and 1855 by Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve. This time, the arc stretched from Hammerfest in Norway down to the Black Sea, including some of the same observation points which had been used by Maupertuis. In 2005, Struves geodetic arc was listed as a UNESCO world heritage.

Visitors to Torne Valley can find one monument by the church in Tornio and another monument in Kittisvaara. As a curiosity, the arms of the Finnish municipal Pello contains three stars which is a reference to the meridian measurements.

Further reading

The degree measurements by de Maupertuis in the Tornionlaakso Valley 1736-1737. http://lapinkavijat.rovaniemi.fi/maupertuis/index_eng.html [2013-06-26]

Terrall, Mary, The man who flattened the earth: Maupertuis and the sciences in the Enlightenment, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill., 2002

In addition, you may find at large libraries both Maupertuis own account of the expedition as well as the diary written by one of his crew members, Réginald Outhier. And if you can read Swedish, there is also a fictional novel by Olof Hederyd based on the fate of the two Planström sisters.