‘Glowing clouds’ might be visible in NJ tonight following rocket launch

     Vapor clouds following a sounding rocket launch. (Image: NOAA)

    Vapor clouds following a sounding rocket launch. (Image: NOAA)

    Skygazers could see a rocket launch followed by several multicolored patches in the sky Wednesday evening. 

    A Black Brant IX suborbital rocket, also called a sounding rocket, was scheduled to launch yesterday but was rescheduled for tonight. The rocket is now slated to blast off as early as 7 p.m. (the launch window runs to 9 p.m.) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague Island, Va.

    The real fun begins shortly after the launch.

    “Approximately six minutes after launch, the sounding rocket will deploy four sub-payloads containing mixtures of barium and strontium will be released, creating a cloud that is blue-green and red in color,” a NASA release said.

    Depending on weather conditions, the release might be seen throughout the Mid-Atlantic. In New Jersey, the visibility to the south/southeast will begin approximately six minutes after the launch.

    NOAA current forecasts mostly clear skies this 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.

    A small quantity of strontium will be added to the barium mixture for Wednesday’s experiment, making it easier to track the cloud, NASA officials said.

    Live coverage of the launch is available on UStream beginning at 6 p.m. You can follow the launch status on Twitter and Facebook.

    The launch window runs through Oct. 12.

    This story has been updated to reflect that Tuesday’s launch was scuttled but rescheduled for Wednesday, Oct 7.

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