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NASA Sounding Rocket Experiment To Produce Colorful Artificial Clouds Over Mid-Atlantic

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Early birds along the mid-Atlantic coast could get a chance to see colorful and glowing clouds in the skies in the early morning hours on Thursday, June 1, if NASA's Wallops Flight Facility successfully launches a science rocket.

Launch Of NASA Sounding Rocket

The skies over the mid-Atlantic coast will light up with very early on Thursday morning as NASA launches the Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to test new systems that support science studies of the aurora and the ionosphere.

The ionosphere is the layer of the Earth's atmosphere ionized by solar and cosmic radiation. It lies between 37 miles and 620 miles above the planet and forms the inner edge of the magnetosphere. Aurora, on the other hand, is a natural light display caused by solar winds that strike the magnetosphere.

Blue-green and red artificial clouds are expected to be produced as part of the test and will give scientists a peek into the interaction between air molecules and highly energized particles.

The launch was initially scheduled on Wednesday, May 31, between 4:27 and 4:42 a.m. EDT, but it was postponed on June 1 because of the weather as the launch requires clear skies. The launch was rescheduled due to clouds in the forecast. The launch window, however, remains the same. In case the launch does not push through, backup launch dates run until June 6.

Sounding Rocket Experiments

Ten canisters that are about the size of a soft drink can will be deployed in the air during the flight of the two-stage sounding rocket.

The canisters will be deployed at least 6 miles away from the main payload 4 to 5.5 minutes after launch. It will likewise produce blue-green and red vapor forming artificial clouds, also known as vapor tracers, that will allow scientists on the ground to visually track particle motions in space. Ground cameras will be placed at Wallops and in Duck, North Carolina to view these clouds.

"In addition to gathering measurements using instruments, another standard sounding rocket experiment used by scientists involves the creation of visible trails and 'clouds' through the release of vapors that either glow on their own (i.e., luminescence) or scatter sunlight," NASA explained. "Scientists monitor and take pictures of the subsequent trails and clouds for extended time periods in order to learn how the upper atmosphere and/or the ionosphere moves and evolves."

Interaction of strontium, barium, and cupric-oxide will form the vapor tracers, which will be released between 96 to 124 miles above. NASA said that this will not pose hazards to residents along the mid-Atlantic coast, where these clouds will be visible.

"We expect them to be able to see it, especially in the D.C.-Baltimore area," said NASA spokesman Keith Koehler. "Really, from New York to North Carolina."

The multi-canister or ampule ejection system is being developed to allow scientists to collect information over larger areas than what was previously possible when deploying the vapor from the main payload.

The total flight time of the mission is anticipated to last about 8 minutes. The payload is expected to land in the Atlantic Ocean where it will not be recovered.

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