A NASA rocket is about to shoot colored clouds into space — here's how to see them – Business Insider

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cusp region experiment crex space clouds flickr jason ahrns ccbyncsa2 14880829347_eba4aafd5b_o

The Cusp Region EXPeriment
(C-REX) in 2014 created brightly colored clouds in
space.
NASA; Jason
Ahrns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

  • NASA is launching a rocket that will create colorful
    clouds in space.
  • The rocket launch and clouds may be visible as far away
    as New York City.
  • Such clouds will eventually be used to probe two big
    holes in Earth’s magnetic shield, called cusps.
  • The launch will be live-streamed by NASA.

NASA is about to launch a rocket that will puff out highly
visible clouds of red and blue-green vapor into space.

The rocket was supposed to launch on May 31, but bad weather and
poor visibility pushed the mission back to Monday, June 12,
with a liftoff time between 9:04 p.m. and 9:19 p.m. EDT.

The sounding rocket carrying the experiment will launch from
NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, so if skies are clear
at that time, many people on the US East Coast may see the
brightly colored puffs of “tracer
vapors
” more than 90 miles above Earth about 5 minutes after
the rocket launch. People as far north as New York City may be
able to see the psychedelic space clouds appear low on the
South-Southwest horizon.

“I’ve seen some of these tests where the clouds really filled the
sky,” Keith Koehler, a NASA Wallops spokesperson, told Business
Insider. “My guess is if you held your fist up, that might be the
size of the clouds [close to the launch site].”

space clouds launch viewing region june 2017 nasa wallopsThe
approximate viewing region (weather depending) for NASA’s attempt
to create brightly colored clouds in space.
NASA
Wallops

If you won’t be in this area at that time, don’t fret: NASA
Wallops will host live video on Ustream, with
coverage kicking off around 8:30 p.m. EDT. (A player is
embedded at the end of this post.)

NASA’s space clouds, however, aren’t merely for show.

Probing Earth’s leaky atmosphere

The experiment is one of many missions in an international
Grand Challenge” initiative that aims
to help scientists better probe two gaping holes in Earth’s
protective magnetic shield, called cusps.

The huge magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet is vital to
life, since it deflects the sun’s constant wind of high-energy
particles — and protects against the occasional
solar storm
.

Without this invisible force field, Earth may have gone the way
of Mars, a planet which lost its magnetic dynamo billions of
years ago. That allowed the sun to blow most of the Martian
atmosphere
into deep space
, turning a once wet and
potentially habitable
world into a dry and nearly
airless global desert
.

The two holes in our invisible shield leak nearly
100 tons of air per day
, according to Astronomy Now.

sounding rocket terrier improved malmute nasaA
Terrier Malemute sounding rocket.
NASA

While we won’t run out of air anytime soon (thankfully, our
planet has quadrillions of tons left), scientists are still
struggling to understand how the cusps work. In particular, they
want to make them visible — which is where the colored clouds
come into play.

Launching tracer vapors such as barium (green), cupric-oxide
(blue-green), and strontium (red) into the Earth’s ionosphere —
where charged air particles and the solar wind interact — will
show how the clouds move through the region. This data
could then help verify and update computer models
of the fringes of Earth’s atmosphere.

Those models, in turn, may help researchers better understand all
sorts of high-altitude phenomena, including auroras,
geomagnetic storms
— and why a planet like Mars lost all
its air while ours has held on to its atmosphere.

Launching space clouds

Koehler says nearly all tracer-vapor missions, except for a few
recent
test launches
, spew the vapors directly out of the
rocket body. This limits the data that scientists can collect
from the ground, however, because the colored clouds are close
together and often hard to distinguish.

The upcoming launch will test a new method: Shooting lightweight
canisters, called ampules, out of the sides of the rocket. The 10
canisters are expected to travel 6 to 12 miles before
they start releasing vapor, which should make a constellation of
colored clouds that are easy to distinguish and follow from the
ground.

“They’re made of aluminum and about the size of a Coke can,”
Koehler said of the ampules.

ampules tracer vapor space clouds sounding rocket experiment nasaThis
experimental rocket has doors that will open and launch ampules
of tracer vapor.
NASA/Berit
Bland

The chemical tracer clouds aren’t easily observable by
themselves — they react to sunlight. So to maximize their
visibility, the launch will happen when it’s dark on the ground,
yet the sun is still visible from space (where the clouds will be
created).

“These launches have to occur just after sunset or right before
sunrise. You need sunlight to hit the vapors and activate them as
they’re released,” Koehler said. “Auroras dance across the sky,
and this is not that.”

Watch the launch live

NASA Wallops is hosting a live video stream that kicks off around
8:30 p.m. EDT.

You can watch the feed in the player below.

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