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A small NASA rocket created a burst of colorful clouds in the night sky

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After a month, this artful mission finally got off the ground

The colorful results of NASA’s sounding rocket mission.
Image: NASA

After a month of trying, NASA finally launched one of its small sounding rockets from the coast of Virginia, creating a delightful mix of colorful clouds in the upper atmosphere. The vibrant show was no fluke, but the main point of the mission. The rocket, a Terrier-Improved Malemute, was tasked with releasing canisters filled with multi-colored chemical vapors into the sky to create vivid clouds that could be seen from the ground.

It’s a launch that’s been a long time in the making. Originally scheduled for May 31st, the mission has been continuously pushed back due to poor weather conditions. But at 4:25AM ET this morning, the sounding rocket finally got off the ground from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, reaching an altitude of 118 miles. During the flight, which lasted just eight minutes, 10 canisters filled with chemicals called vapor tracers were released and formed the clouds.

A long exposure shot of the launch.
Photo by Terry Zaperach / NASA

Creating these artificial clouds helps researchers more easily track how particles move at super--high altitudes. And that’s important when it comes to better understanding Earth’s ionosphere — the upper part of our planet’s atmosphere that is ionized by solar and cosmic radiation. These ionized gases, which extend out into space, are manipulated by Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists have made models to predict how the ionosphere moves and changes across the globe, but the best way to prove if those models are correct is to see these particles in action.

These sounding rocket missions are an artful way to do that, and NASA assures everyone that the launches do not pose any threat to human health. The vapor tracers that are released are made of barium, lithium, and trimethylaluminum, the same ingredients you might find in fireworks. And NASA’s sounding rockets release a whole lot less of these chemicals than a big fireworks show.

It’s no surprise, then, that the result of NASA’s mission does look a bit like a firework. And thanks to a new method of releasing the canisters, the clouds could be seen for many miles around, from North Carolina to New York. NASA says it got 2,000 reports of cloud sightings, but don’t take the agency’s word for it. Check out viewers’ shots of the vapor tracers on NASA’s Wallops Facebook page.