The psychedelic puffs of vapor may help scientists probe two big holes in Earth's magnetic shield.
Update: Due to high winds, NASA delayed the launch to Saturday, June 24, between 9:07 and 9:22 p.m. EDT.
- NASA is launching a rocket that will create colorful clouds in space.
- The rocket launch and clouds may be visible as far away as New York City.
- Such clouds will eventually be used to probe two big holes in Earth's magnetic shield, called cusps.
- The launch will be live-streamed by NASA Wallops Flight Facility.
For the last two weeks, NASA has been waiting for the right moment to launch a rocket that will puff clouds of red and blue-green vapor out into space.
The rocket was originally supposed to launch on May 31, but poor visibility and bad weather conditions have delayed the mission a number of times. The next attempt will be made Saturday, June 24, with a hopeful liftoff time between 9:07 p.m. and 9:22 p.m. EDT.
If the skies are clear enough, the sounding rocket carrying the experiment will launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. In that case, many people on the US East Coast — as far north as New York City — may see brightly colored puffs of "tracer vapors" more than 90 miles above Earth.
The psychedelic space clouds should appear low on the southern horizon about 5 minutes after the rocket launch.
"I've seen some of these tests where the clouds really filled the sky," Keith Koehler, a NASA Wallops spokesperson, told Business Insider. "My guess is if you held your fist up, that might be the size of the clouds [close to the launch site]."
If you won't be in the area at that time, don't fret: NASA Wallops will host live video on Ustream, with coverage kicking off around 8:30 p.m. EDT. (A player is embedded at the end of this post.)
NASA's space clouds, however, aren't merely for show.
Probing Earth's leaky atmosphere
The experiment is one of many missions in an international "Grand Challenge" initiative aimed at helping scientists probe two gaping holes in Earth's protective magnetic shield, called cusps.
The two holes in our invisible shield leak nearly 100 tons of air per day, according to Astronomy Now.
The magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet is vital to life, since it deflects the sun's constant wind of high-energy particles — and protects against the occasional solar storm. Without this invisible force field, Earth may have gone the way of Mars, which lost its magnetic dynamo billions of years ago. That allowed the sun to blow most of the Martian atmosphere into deep space, turning a once wet and potentially habitable world into a dry and nearly airless global desert.
We won't run out of air anytime soon (thankfully, our planet has quadrillions of tons left), but scientists are still struggling to understand how the cusps work. In particular, they want to make them visible — which is where the colored clouds come into play.
Launching tracer vapors such as barium (green), cupric-oxide (blue-green), and strontium (red) into the Earth's ionosphere — where charged air particles and the solar wind interact — will show how the clouds move through the region. This data could then help verify and update computer models of the fringes of Earth's atmosphere.
Those models, in turn, may help researchers better understand all sorts of high-altitude phenomena, including auroras, geomagnetic storms — and why a planet like Mars lost all its air while ours has held on to its atmosphere.
Launching space clouds
Koehler says nearly all tracer-vapor missions, except for a few recent test launches, spew the vapors directly out of the rocket body. This limits the data that scientists can collect from the ground, however, because the colored clouds are close together and often hard to distinguish.
The upcoming launch will test a new method: Shooting lightweight canisters, called ampules, out of the sides of the rocket. The 10 canisters are expected to travel 6 to 12 miles before they start releasing vapor, which should make a constellation of colored clouds that are easy to distinguish and follow from the ground.
"They're made of aluminum and about the size of a Coke can," Koehler said of the ampules.
The chemical tracer clouds aren't easily observable by themselves — they react to sunlight. So to maximize their visibility, the launch will happen when it's dark on the ground, yet the sun is still visible from space.
"These launches have to occur just after sunset or right before sunrise. You need sunlight to hit the vapors and activate them as they're released," Koehler said. "Auroras dance across the sky, and this is not that."
Watch the launch live
If the launch does happen (though we don't necessarily recommend getting your hopes up), you can watch NASA Wallops' live video stream in the player below starting around 8:30 p.m. EDT.