NASA Five-rocket Barrage Creates Glowing Clouds at Edge of Space

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NEW YORK — NASA launched a barrage of small rockets early March 27, with five rockets blasting off within five minutes to create glowing clouds at the edge of space that wowed skywatchers all along the East Coast.

The launches from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia capped nearly a week of vexing delays for NASA’s Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or ATREX. The five suborbital rockets launched to the edge of space more than 97 kilometers above Earth and released a chemical tracer known as trimethyl aluminum.

“Each of the rockets released a chemical tracer that created milky, white clouds at the edge of space,” NASA officials said in a statement. “The launches and clouds were reported to be seen from as far south as Wilmington, N.C.; west to Charlestown, W. Va.; and north to Buffalo, N.Y.”

The launches occurred at 4:58 a.m. EDT — near the end of the day’s launch window — with each rocket launching 80 seconds after the one before it. The mission is aimed at understanding the ultrafast jet stream winds that can reach speeds of up to 483 kilometers per hour. The chemical tracers released allowed scientists to track those winds.

The launches followed repeated delays due to bad weather, a wayward boat in the launch range and a technical glitch, which forced the mission to postpone its initial March 14 liftoff target. But braving the delays for a chance to glimpse glowing clouds near space was worth it, skywatchers said.

Astrophotographer Jeff Berkes caught spectacular views of the ATREX clouds from outside Philadelphia. In his images, the clouds look like a huge, iridescent creature with wings spread across the predawn sky.

The $4 million ATREX mission is aimed at better understanding the high-altitude jet stream, which streaks along at altitudes of 97 to 105 kilometers — much higher up than the jet stream commonly referred to in weather forecasts, which is found just 10 kilometers or so above Earth. Theory suggests that this high-altitude jet stream should blow at only about 80 kilometers per hour, but in truth the average speed is closer to 320 kilometers per hour and occasionally hits 480 kilometers per hour, researchers have said.

To conduct the ATREX experiment, NASA used small sounding rockets capable of reaching suborbital heights but not powerful enough to completely enter orbit and circle the Earth. Observing stations in Tuckerton, N.J., Duck, N.C., and the Wallops Island launch site were positioned to record the results.

The outcome, skywatchers said, was amazing.

In Seaside Park, N.J., skywatcher and photographer Jack Fusco snapped an eye-catching view of the eerie clouds from a dark beach, with the Milky Way serving as a backdrop.

“It was well worth a few sleepless nights and ending up in the freezing, windy conditions to catch this view,” Fusco said.

 

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