You know your crazy relative who’s always suspicious of black SUVs? Quick—block him on Facebook. NASA is scheduled to launch a suborbital rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, on Wednesday night, and as one of its experiments, it will eject colorful clouds of vapor more than a hundred miles above the ground in order to study ions and neutral particles in the upper atmosphere.
While this experiment in the ionosphere sounds similar to one of our favorite unhinged conspiracy theories, this one (unlike the other) is both A) real and B) science. Think of these vapor tracers as serving a similar purpose to the contrast agent you might have to drink before a CT scan that helps the radiologist see anomalies in your body. Scientists at NASA will use optical equipment to observe the glowing vapor trails to better understand wind patterns and how ions and neutral particles behave at the edge of space.
Scientists are acutely interested in studying the ionosphere because, among other things, it affects how radio signals travel around the world. One of the most notable ionospheric studies conducted in recent decades was the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, the acronym for which is...wait for it...HAARP. The powerful array of radio antennas in Alaska sent beams of energy into the ionosphere to study its behavior. (It behaved better than some people, that’s for sure.)
The U.S. Air Force shuttered HAARP in 2013 and closed it permanently in 2014; the site and its equipment are now controlled by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks for research teams willing to cough up dough to use it.
NASA says that the vapor released in this launch will be a mixture of barium and strontium. Barium “ionizes quickly when exposed to sunlight and has a purple-red color,” according to their page on vapor tracers, and the strontium is added to the mix because it helps make the plume more visible to scientists. These are some of the same compounds used in fireworks to give them their brilliant colors.
The result might look something like this:
If you’re worried about health effects of a rocket over the ocean releasing a payload of metallic vapor more than a hundred miles up in the atmosphere, fear not! It won’t come anywhere near you. In fact, you stand a greater chance of being exposed to much higher levels of these metals during our annual tradition of blowing things up in the name of freedom:
The amount of barium and strontium used in the test is much smaller than that used in a typical July 4 fireworks display and poses no hazard to the community.
This launch will occur after sunset when it’s dark on the ground but there’s still sunlight high in the atmosphere, allowing them (and us) to easily see the glowing emissions.
Assuming all systems are go, it might be possible to see the launch—and subsequent colorful plumes—across heavily-populated parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. A map of the area of potential visibility is embedded at the top of this post. Most of the areas that could potentially see the glowing clouds should have good visibility, with partly (water-)cloudy skies likely across the Mid-Atlantic at launch time.
The launch window is between 7:00 PM and 9:00 PM Eastern Time, so monitor social media and NASA’s feeds and look skyward around dusk tonight. You can watch the mission unfold live via NASA’s Wallops Island UStream account.