NASA will try again to create colorful clouds in the night sky

Posted at 4:51 PM, Jun 13, 2017

A long exposure of the night sky at the Wallops Flight Facility on Chincoteague Island, Virginia.

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — NASA is hoping for lucky No. 7 on Tuesday night after cloudy skies led to a sixth failed attempt to launch a much-anticipated rocket.

The Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket is expected to create a multicolored light show of blue-green and red clouds visible on much of the East Coast, from New York to North Carolina. The launch window will be from 9:04 to 9:19 p.m. ET Tuesday.

The rocket’s launch has been delayed several times since May 31, including Monday night.

The scrubbing occurred for various reasons, from strong winds and clouds to boats in the potential landing area.

The rocket is set to launch from Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore if conditions are favorable. Tuesday night’s forecast shows more clouds in the area, which could mean a seventh scrubbing.

NASA will need clear skies at one of its two viewing locations on the ground — the launch site on Wallops Island, Virginia, and in Duck, North Carolina.

The sounding rocket isn’t even the coolest part of the mission.

Four to five minutes after launch, the rocket is expected to deploy 10 canisters about the size of soft drink cans, each containing a colored vapor that forms artificial, luminescent clouds.

The clouds, or vapor tracers, are formed “through the interaction of barium, strontium, and cupric-oxide,” according to NASA.

Since the canisters will be released about 100 miles (160 kilometers) above the ground, the space agency says they “pose absolutely no hazard to residents along the mid-Atlantic coast.”

Sounding rockets have been used for more than 40 years to carry science payloads on missions that last five to 20 minutes.

The vapor tracers will allow scientists on the ground to view the movement of the particles in the ionosphere, a part of the Earth’s atmosphere that stretches to the edge of space, to learn more about the movement of the air currents at that altitude.

The whole mission will last about eight minutes before the payload lands in the Atlantic Ocean, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) out to sea from its launch point in Virginia.

“The vapor tracers could be visible from New York to North Carolina and westward to Charlottesville, Virginia,” NASA said.

If you’re near the Eastern US Coast, look toward the eastern horizon beginning shortly after 9 p.m. The farther you are from the launch location, the lower the clouds will appear on the horizon.

If you are north of the launch site — say, in Washington, Philadelphia or New York — the clouds will appear in the lower southeastern sky. If you are to the south — in Norfolk, Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks of North Carolina — look toward the northeastern horizon. Richmond and Charlottesville residents should be able to see the clouds directly to the east.

Not on the East Coast? No worries — NASA has you covered with a livestream beginning at 8:30 p.m., and continuous updates on the Wallops Facebook and Twitter sites. Smartphone users can download the “What’s Up at Wallops” app to get more launch information.