NASA rocket experiment will light up sky

Posted by Kate Taylor

Skywatchers along the eastern US should have a ringside seat for a new NASA experiment designed to shed light on the Earth's jet stream winds.

Later this month, it will launch five sounding rockets in its the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX). The rockets, which are around 35 to 40 feet long, will fly for eight to ten minutes, around 65 miles above the Earth's surface.

The team hopes to gain a better understanding of these high-altitude winds and help improve models of the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems.

"This area shows winds much larger than expected," says Miguel Larsen, a space scientist at Clemson University.

"We don't yet know what we're going to see, but there is definitely something unusual going on. ATREX will help us understand the big question about what is driving these fast winds."

The rockets will launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia between March 14 and April 3, releasing a chemical tracer into the air. The chemical – a substance called trimethyl aluminum (TMA) - forms milky, white clouds that allow those on the ground to see the winds in space and track them with cameras.

In addition, two of the rockets will have instrumented payloads to measure pressure and temperature in the atmosphere.

The rockets being used for the mission are two Terrier-Improved Malemutes, two Terrier-Improved Orions and one Terrier-Oriole.

The'll be launched on a clear night within a period of minutes, so the trails can all be seen at the same time. The trimethyl aluminum will then be released in space out over the Atlantic Ocean at altitudes from 50 to 90 miles.

The cloud tracers will last for up to 20 minutes and will be visible in the mid-Atlantic region, and along the east coast of the United States from parts of South Carolina to New Jersey.

"People have launched single rockets before," says Larsen. "But the key here is that we're extending the range of measurements to many hundreds of miles. The furthest rocket will make it half way to Bermuda."

The scientists will use special camera equipment to track the five clouds and measure how quickly they move away from each other, showing what kind of turbulence exists in the winds.

Three-dimensional turbulence would suggest the winds move with laws of motion similar to those governing small-scale waves in water, while two-dimensional turbulence would support a model based on a more directed, jet stream flow.

"In 3D turbulence, one sees complicated movement," says Larsen. "But there's a tendency for 2D turbulence to behave almost in the opposite manner – the airflow coalesces into single streams, like a jet stream."

If you're hoping to spot the sounding rocket trails, there are launch status updates here.