Local News

NASA to Launch "Fireworks"

Posted July 3, 1999

— It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a UFO! None of the above. It's a NASA-created cloud!

A series of nighttime rocket launches in Virginia from now until July 20 may arouse the curiosity of some skywatchers -- because in some instances large white glowing clouds will be formed in space. And they will be visible in the Triangle area for about 10 to 20 minutes after launch.

It's all being done in the name of science. Designed to study "space weather" -- the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere -- the experiments will focus on improving understanding of electrically charged atoms at the edge of space.

During the experiment, two suborbital rockets will be launched on each of two nights between 9:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. EDT from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility.

Two of the experimental packages will release a chemical that will form large clouds in space. These luminescent clouds should be visible to the naked eye for several hundred miles from the launch site.

They are expected to be at about 70 degrees elevation (about three-quarters of the way between the horizon and the point of the sky that appears to be directly above an observer).

The chemical, trimethylaluminum, will be released in the ionosphere between 43 and 96 miles altitude. Harmless by-products will disperse across thousands of miles as they diffuse into the upper atmosphere.

The experiments will take place in a region above the Earth that at first appears to be empty and very quiet. In fact, the Earth's upper atmosphere actually is bustling with activity. Here the solar wind (a fast-moving stream of particles emanating from the Sun), the Sun's magnetic field and Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere come together. Their interactions can create disturbances just above the Earth's lower atmosphere.

These disturbances can affect radio, television and satellite communications. By better understanding these interactions in the ionosphere, scientists hope to gain information that will ultimately help improve the reliability of radio and satellite communications.

The status of the launches can be found by calling the Wallops Flight Facility at launch status line at 757-824-2050.


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