NASA rocket launch may produce brief, colorful clouds across eastern U.S. skies

Weather Blog

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Between the hours of 8 and 9 P.M., look up to the sky and you may see something out of the ordinary…

SATURDAY EVENING UPDATE:

Over the past few days, NASA’s launch out of Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia has been postponed due to unfavorable weather conditions such as strong winds aloft and cloudy skies and technical difficulties. The latest update has the launch taking place on Sunday, May 16th no earlier than 8:04 P.M. ET. This will be the last opportunity in the short term for launch.

Be sure to keep up to date with the latest information just in case they decide to follow through as planned. You can do so on both their Twitter and website.

The facility will typically start their countdown a few hours before the launch to go through system checks on ground and rocket equipment. Sometimes they will “hold” the launch at 3 and 15 minutes while they evaluate the present weather conditions before initiating the final launch protocols. Back up days for launch will run through May 16th.

ABOUT THE LAUNCH

A NASA rocket launch based out of Virginia is set to take place (weather permitting) that’s on a mission to explore energy transport in space. The launch will happen “no earlier than 8:02 P.M. EDT,” and is expected to put on a very brief “light show” across the eastern U.S. if skies are clear enough.

Your local forecast HERE.

The mission being explored, called the KinETic-scale energy and momentum transport experiment, or KiNet-X for short, will study how energy and momentum are transported between different parts of space that are magnetically connected.

ABOUT THE ROCKET

The rocket being used for the research experiment is called the Black Brant XII, and will release a barium vapor that form two green-violet clouds that should be visible across Western New York skies for about 30-60 seconds.

Image courtesy: NASA

SCIENCE BEHIND LAUNCH

The barium vapor will be released about 9-10 minutes after the launch at an altitude of 540-560 miles over the Atlantic ocean. These vapor clouds will quickly ionize after being exposed to the sun’s light, which gives it the color transition from green to violet.

NASA states, “In the mid-Atlantic region latitudes, the field lines are inclined by about 45 degrees to the horizontal, so the violet clouds stretch out in a slanted orientation and look more like short trails than a cloud.” The violet color will be much harder to see to the human eye than the green, so look carefully!

The vapor is not expected to be harmful to the environment or the public.

Releasing this vapor into the earth’s atmosphere will end up generating a high density plasma.

Plasma is considered to be the 4th state of matter (solid, liquid, gas, & plasma). The universe is made up of space plasma; a gas that’s so hot that all of its atoms are split up into ions and electrons that can move independently of each other. Since plasma is made up of these electrically charged particles, they often interact with and are strongly influenced by electromagnetic fields and forces.

Plasma can be found all throughout the solar system including the solar corona and wind, the magnetospheres of the earth, tails of comets, and even on earth’s surface inside of nuclear fusion reactors and candle flames!

Barium is used to study the motion of ions in space, and releases the two different green-violet colors based on whether the particles it’s interacting with are charged or neutral. The way the barium interacts with the chemical composition of the atmosphere is similar to how auroras produce their colorful light show across our night sky, so understanding how this energy is transported through space can help us better understand how the energy from auroras interact with our own atmosphere among other unique space phenomena.

You can catch the livestream of the NASA launch HERE.

~Meteorologist Christine Gregory

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