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NASA sounding rocket releases artificial clouds above mid-Atlantic

NASA Terrier improved Malemute Wallops Flight Facility photo

NASA launched a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket at 4:25 a.m. (08:25 GMT) on Thursday, June 29, from Wallops Flight Facility located in Virginia. (Click for full view) Photo Credit: NASA

On Thursday, June 29, after numerous delays, the early morning skies along the mid-Atlantic coast came alive with luminescent clouds as NASA checked out a new deployment system that supports science studies of the ionosphere and aurora.

Terrier-Improved Malemute launch (2017-06-29)

The flight lasted for about 8 minutes and deployed about ten canisters as part of the rocket’s payload. Photo Credit: K. Hoppes / NASA

The mission was launched atop a two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute suborbital sounding rocket from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility (the 15th flight of one of these rockets from Wallops Island) on the eastern Virginia shore. The flight was supposed to get underway on May 31, then on June 1.

When all was said and done, the mission was rescheduled numerous times, almost all of which were due to weather conditions not being optimal.

The space agency has not stood still while waiting for this mission to get underway. A Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket carrying the RockOn/RockSat-C payload was successfully launched at 5:30 a.m. EDT (09:30 GMT) on Thursday, June 22.

Clear skies while preferred, were not required, on this particular mission with blue-green and red artificial clouds being produced as part the test – this occurred approximately 4 and 5.5 minutes after launch. NASA has stated that these could be visible all the way from New York to North Carolina.

Ground cameras located at Wallops and Duck, North Carolina, monitored the vapor tracers. which provide their results through an interaction with barium, strontium, and cupric oxide.

It is anticipated that these clouds or vapor tracers will allow scientists to visually track particle motions in space from the ground. These tracers were deployed at altitudes of about 96 to 124 miles (154 to 200 kilometers).

NASA hopes that scientists will be able to use this multi-canister or ampule ejection system to get data from a much larger area than was previously possible.

During the flight, ten canisters, about the size of a soda can, were deployed into the atmosphere around 6 to 12 miles (9.65 to 19 kilometers) away from the 670-pound (304-kilogram) primary payload.

From start to finish, the mission elapsed time stood at approximately 8 minutes, with the payload (which was not recovered) splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean some 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the launch site.

As one might imagine, such a highly visible event was witnessed by a large number of people. Wallops received almost 2,000 call-ins, e-mails, and images relating to the clouds from New York and all the way down to North Carolina. According to the space agency, these also came from across Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Video courtesy of NASA Wallops



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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