Update: Due to poor weather conditions, NASA delayed
the launch , between 9:05 and 9:20 p.m.
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 Wallops Flight
For the last two weeks, NASA has been waiting for the right
moment to launch a rocket that will puff clouds of red and
blue-green vapor out into space.
The rocket was originally supposed to launch on May 31, but bad
weather and poor visibility have pushed the mission back quite a
few times. The next attempt will be made , with a hopeful liftoff time between 9:05 p.m. and
9:20 p.m. EDT.
To find out if the launch is a go, you can check the facility’s
If the skies are clear enough, the sounding rocket carrying the
experiment will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in
Virginia. In that case, many people on the US East Coast — as far
north as New York City — may see brightly colored puffs of
“” more than 90 miles above Earth.
The psychedelic space clouds should appear low on the southern
horizon about 5 minutes after the rocket launch.
“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].”
If you won’t be in the area at that time, don’t fret: NASA
Wallops will host live video , with coverage kicking
off around 8:30 p.m. EDT. (A player is embedded at the end of
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
“” initiative aimed
at helping scientists probe two gaping holes in Earth’s
protective magnetic shield, called cusps.
The two holes in our invisible shield leak nearly , according to Astronomy Now.
The 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 . Without this invisible force field, Earth may
have gone the way of Mars, which lost its magnetic dynamo
billions of years ago. That allowed the sun to blow most of the
Martian atmosphere , turning a once wet and world into a dry and .
We won’t run out of air anytime soon (thankfully, our planet has
quadrillions of tons left), but 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
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
Those models, in turn, may help researchers better understand all
sorts of high-altitude phenomena, including auroras, — 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
, 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.
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.
“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
If the launch does happen (though we don’t necessarily recommend
getting your hopes up), you can watch NASA Wallops’ live video
stream in the player below starting around 8:30 p.m.