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NASA launching rocket tonight on self-destruction mission to study the early universe

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NASA CIBER image (Credit: Jamie Bock/Caltech)
NASA CIBER image (Credit: Jamie Bock/Caltech)

NASA is launching a rocket high into Earth's atmosphere tonight between 11 PM and midnight Eastern time, in an effort to capture images from the universe's dawn. The agency will be broadcasting the launch live on Ustream from Wallops, Virginia, and the launch site will be open to the public. But the mission, known as the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRIment Four (CIBER)-4), won't be returning to Earth when it's done, unlike three previous flights of this same experiment.

Instead, the 70-foot-tall rocket and the infrared cameras on board it will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles off the coast of Virginia just a few minutes after launch, where NASA will let them sink to the bottom. The sacrifice is necessary because the mission uses a low-cost "sounding rocket" that doesn't have landing capabilities, and this time, it will be reaching a much higher altitude than previous flights — up to 350 miles in altitude, making it difficult to safely eject its instruments. Still, NASA is planning on using the cameras aboard the rocket to capture more and higher quality images of the radiation signatures from the early universe than ever before.

“The objectives of the experiment are of fundamental importance for astrophysics: to probe the process of first galaxy formation," said CIBER's lead scientist, Jamie Block, in a statement published today. "The measurement is extremely difficult technically." Still, he and his colleagues are already hard at work on a follow-up mission with even better detectors, due to launch next year.