Shortly after 4am on Thursday, June 29, after numerous delays and scrubs, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility has a successful rocket launch which triggered colorful, glowing clouds for many to see over the Mid Atlantic.
The NASA Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket brought a payload of canisters more than 90 miles above the Earth’s surface; these canisters deployed various substances to trigger the glowing clouds high in the sky. The Ampoule Test Launch is designed to support science around the study of aurora. The vapor tracers are formed through the interaction of barium, strontium, and cupric-oxide. Because these tracers are released at altitudes of 96-124 miles high, NASA says they “pose absolutely no hazard to residents along the Mid-Atlantic coast.”
We asked the scientists with famed website and app “Aurorasaurus” for their thoughts on this launch; they said, “The (vapor) clouds trace winds in the neutral and ionized upper atmosphere which is not fully understood and otherwise difficult to probe. Usually this type of experiment is done in auroral regions and tracked with arrays of ground-based cameras. The purpose of the launch is to test improvements in the technology, so its main purpose is not science. However, photographs of the clouds and their evolution from a broad range of vantage points may contain scientifically valuable observations.” Because all observations can be valuable ones, Auroasaurus scientists are encouraging citizens scientists to report what they see. “We are encouraging people to submit observations through the Aurorasaurus.org citizen science platform so they can be archived, documented observations.” Those not visiting the Aurorasaurus website or using the app can also use other social media channels to get their observations out there. “People can also tweet images and our platform will automatically pick them up IF the word aurora is included as well as a named or geo-tagged location. Aurorasaurus users can then up-vote those tweets to find the real-time observations.
While the aurora has been known to dance about bringing vibrant colors to northern latitudes, this man-made light show was not nearly as large or as bright. Aurorasaurus scientists tell us that this view “definitely looks quite different than real aurora.”
NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program is conducted at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility, which is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Orbital ATK provides mission planning, engineering services and field operations through the NASA Sounding Rocket Operations Contract. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding-rocket program for the agency.
Sounding rockets like the one responsible for Sunday’s mission were first used in the 1950s, aiding scientific research with experiments which inject vapor tracers in the upper atmosphere. These sounding rocket launches have greatly aided scientists understanding of Earth’s near-space environment. These materials make visible the naturally occurring flows of ionized and neutral particles either by luminescing at distinct wavelengths in the visible and infrared part of the spectrum or by scattering sunlight. The type of vapor selected to create these colorful clouds and trails depends on the purpose of the investigation, the local time, and the altitude under study.