WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, Eastern Virginia — If you live along the Eastern Seaboard — and don’t mind waking up early — you could be treated to a colorful sky Friday morning, hours before sunrise lights up the horizon.
Blue-green and red clouds might be visible in the predawn sky from New York to North Carolina, thanks to a NASA rocket that will be launched from Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia.
The Terrier-Improved Malumute sounding rocket is scheduled for launch Friday between 4:26 a.m. and 4:41 a.m. ET. Sounding rockets, by the way, have been used for over 40 years to carry science payloads on brief, 5-20 minute missions to space.
But in this case, the rocket launch isn’t even the cool part.
Approximately 4 to 5 minutes after launch, the rocket will deploy 10 canisters about the size of a soft drink can, each containing a colored vapor that will form artificial, luminescent clouds.
The clouds, or vapor tracers, are formed “through the interaction of barium, strontium, and cupric-oxide,” according to NASA.
Since the canisters will be released about 100 miles (160 kilometers) above the ground, the space agency says they “pose absolutely no hazard to residents along the mid-Atlantic coast.”
The vapor tracers will allow scientists on the ground to view the movement of the particles in the ionosphere, a region of the Earth’s atmosphere that stretches to the edge of space, to learn more about the movement of the air currents at that altitude.
The entire mission will last only about 8 minutes before the payload lands in the Atlantic Ocean about 90 miles out to sea from its launch point in Virginia.
How to watch
According to NASA, “the vapor tracers could be visible from New York to North Carolina and westward to Charlottesville, Virginia.”
Clear skies are preferred for the launch since the mission involves observing the motion of the colored clouds from ground cameras located in Virginia and North Carolina.
Friday morning should provide mostly clear skies in the viewing location, and upper level winds should be friendly enough to allow the launch to take place.
If you’re near the eastern US coast on Friday, look towards the eastern horizon beginning around 4:30 a.m. The farther you are from the launch location, the lower the clouds will appear on the horizon.
So skywatchers in Central Pennsylvania should look for the clouds in the lower southeastern sky.