Mark your calendars for June 11, East Coast skywatchers: We may be in for a lovely show Sunday night, as NASA launches a sounding rocket and brightly colored vapor clouds into the night.
The (dog-inspired?) Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket is an information-gathering craft laden with instruments to capture information about our atmosphere and ionosphere. Its path will follow a sharp U-shaped trajectory, launching from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, soaring miles into the sky, peaking, then falling back to Earth and plunging into the Atlantic Ocean.
The launch is scheduled to occur between 9:04 and 9:19 p.m. EDT. Experts estimate that the flight will take about eight minutes from start to finish. Approximately four or five minutes after the rocket takes off, NASA will deploy 10 soda can–sized canisters full of reactive chemicals. The cans will burst 96 to 124 miles in the air, producing enormous, vibrant blooms of harmless red and blue-green clouds formed by the interaction of barium, strontium, and cupric-oxide. (These are commonly found in fireworks.) If the weather cooperates, these vapor tracers should be visible from New York to North Carolina and westward into Virginia.
Scientists will track the movement and dissipation of the clouds to understand how particles and air are flowing through the sky above us. Deploying the vapor tracers at a distance from the rocket should help provide an even fuller picture of just what’s going on up there.
We’re using words like should and might because Sunday’s launch is far from a sure thing. It’s already been canceled and rescheduled four times—three times for overcast skies, and once due to the presence of some boats in the launch hazard area.
Those in Virginia or nearby (it's near the Delaware border) can head to the Wallops Visitor Center at 8:00 p.m. on Sunday to watch the launch up close.