Eerie clouds track near-space winds
Posted September 10, 2014
I have a vivid memory from my early years of standing in the parking lot of a bowling center in Rocky Mount with my dad and a large group milling around at the end of the evening about to head home when suddenly, glowing greenish-blue blue and red orbs began spreading silently in the sky above us.
The whole process brought a lot of excitement and maybe a little fear, as no one there knew quite what we were witnessing (this was, after all, in the midst of the Cold War and a pretty decent period of "UFO" interest). A couple of days later, the mystery was solved as phone calls to emergency authorities about this apparition resulted in a newspaper article explaining that it was a NASA sounding rocket releasing materials to study the upper atmosphere.
Jump ahead about 15 years to the early 1980s, when I was an Air Force Wing Weather Officer and heard through work channels that a similar launch was planned for an upcoming weekend morning, while I was on a visit home. I set the camera out on a tripod and caught a few photos, one of which you see here. It was a lot of fun to watch and photograph, although some of the intrigue of that childhood encounter was missing, since I knew this time what was actually going on up there.
The reason this all comes up is that we've received a couple of e-mails and AskGreg questions over the past week or two that have descriptions of strange lights and unusual clouds in the sky early on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 28. It took a couple of those messages before it occurred to me that the people looking for explanations may have seen the same kind of experimental mission in progress.
A little digging online quickly turned up that at about 30 seconds past 5 a.m. that morning NASA launched a "Black Brant" sounding rocket from Wallops Island, Va. In addition to a couple of other purposes, the rocket was used to release some tracer materials (depending on time, altitude and purpose, some combination of one or more of trimethyl aluminum, lithium and/or barium) into the ionosphere. These are used periodically to study the motions at those very high altitude caused by winds and also by magnetic field influences on charged particles. There are some nice photos of the launch itself, and of the tracer clouds (not unlike the old photo I included here), posted by launch personnel and by others in comment sections, at the Wallops Flight Facility's Facebook page.
In addition, NASA has a nice web page explaining the purposes for and manner in which these sounding missions are carried out. I've included links to that page, a page that provides more information about the tracer materials themselves, and to the Wallops Facebook Page mentioned above.
So if you see strange spreading or expanding colored clouds high overhead sometime, usually not too long before sunrise or after sunset, there may be one of these missions underway. If so, enjoy! It's a neat thing to observe, and contributes to our understanding of the near-space atmosphere!