‘Glowing clouds’ might be visible in N.J. following Sunday rocket launch

     Artificial clouds are seen from ground. (Image: NASA's Wallops Flight Facility)

    Artificial clouds are seen from ground. (Image: NASA's Wallops Flight Facility)

    Skygazers might see several multicolored patches in the sky following a Sunday evening rocket launch. 

    A NASA Terrier-Improved Malemute, also called a sounding rocket, is set to blast off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague Island, Va. on Sunday between 9:04 p.m. and 9:19 p.m. It will be the fifth recent launch attempt. 

    NASA says the mission is to test a new system supporting space science studies of the ionosphere and aurora.

    The real fun begins shortly after the rocket ascends toward space. 

    Between four and five-and-a-half minutes after launch, 10 canisters about the size of soft drink can will deploy and produce blue-green and red artificial clouds, known as vapor tracers, that will allow scientists on the ground to visually track particle motions in space, a NASA statement says. 

    The vapor tracers, which NASA says are not harmful, might be seen from New York to North Carolina, depending on weather conditions. In New Jersey, look to the south/southeast sky. 

    As of Friday, NOAA is forecasting mostly clear skies for Sunday evening. 

    Space.com explains the science behind the vapor release:

    Scientists have launched vapor tracers into the upper atmosphere since the 1950s. Such research has greatly aided understanding of the planet’s near-space environment, NASA officials said.

    These materials — including barium — make visible the naturally occurring flows of ionized and neutral particles, either by luminescing at distinct wavelengths in the visible and infrared part of the spectrum or by scattering sunlight.

    For example, a fraction of a barium cloud ionizes quickly when exposed to sunlight. As a result, the cloud can be used to track the motion of charged particles in the ionosphere, as well as the motion of neutral particles in the upper atmosphere.

    Live coverage of the launch is available on UStream beginning at 8:30 p.m. You can follow the launch status on Twitter and Facebook.

    The launch window runs through June 18. 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.