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Rocket volley to study the atmosphere

NASA SUCCESSFULLY LAUNCHED five suborbital sounding rockets March 27 from its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as part of a study of the upper level jet stream.

The first rocket was launched at 4:58am US EDT and each subsequent rocket was launched at 80 second intervals. Each rocket released a chemical tracer that created milky, white clouds at the edge of space.

The goal of the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX) was to improve understanding of the process that drives fast-moving winds high in the thermosphere.

Tracking the way the clouds move can help scientists understand the movement of the winds some 110 kilometres up in the sky, which in turn will help create better models of the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems.

Winds up high

Fiery trails from four of the five sounding rockets are clearly visible in the time-lapse photograph (bottom of this page) of the launch. The other image (below) shows two of the clouds left in the wake of the experiment; the rockets released trimethyl aluminium, a substance that burns spontaneously in the presence of oxygen.

The harmless by-products of this glowing reaction were visible to the naked eye as far south as Wilmington, North Carolina; west to Charlestown, West Virginia; and north to Buffalo, New York. Both photographs were taken near the launch site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Throughout the experiment, researchers used specialised cameras in North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey—as well as temperature and pressure instruments on two of the rockets—to monitor the clouds.

By measuring how quickly the clouds move away from each other and integrating that information into atmospheric models, they hope to improve their understanding of the 320 to 480 kilometre winds in the thermosphere.

ATREX experiment clouds

Each ATREX rocket released a chemical that reacts with oxygen, forming milky white clouds in the upper atmosphere.

First noticed by scientists in the 1960s, the winds are thought to be part of a high-altitude jet stream that’s distinct from the one lower in the troposphere, where commercial aircraft fly. Observing the turbulence produced by these winds should make it possible to determine what’s driving them.

An improved understanding of the upper jet stream will make it easier to model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage satellites and disrupt communications systems. The experiment will also help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a mere day or two.

The launches are part of a broader sounding rocket programmeat NASA that conducts approximately 20 flights a year from launch sites around the world.

The trails of the five ATREX sounding rockets captured in a time-lapse photo.

The trails of the five ATREX sounding rockets captured in a time-lapse photo.

Photographs courtesy NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Text adapted from information issued by Karen Fox and Adam Voiland, NASA Earth Observatory.

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