NASA’s suborbital rockets to light up night skies

26 Mar 2012

NASA ATREX mission: the red dots over the water show where ATREX will deploy chemical tracers to watch how super-fast winds move some 60 miles up in the atmosphere. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Following a couple of delays, NASA is gearing up to launch five sounding rockets into space early in the morning on 27 March. The launch window will be between 2am and 5am EDT. The rockets will be measuring 200-300 mile-per-hour winds as they race through the upper atmosphere jet stream at the edge of space for between eight to 10 minutes.

The rocket launches were scheduled to happen last week, but the night skies weren’t clear enough at the time. The mission known as ATREX (Anonymous Transport Rocket Experiment) will see the five rockets being launched within minutes, so that the trails will be visible all at the same time.

The rockets, which will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, will also release a chemical tracer into the air. This substance is called trimethyl aluminum. NASA said the chemical forms milky, white clouds that allow people on the ground to “see” the winds in space and track them with cameras.

Visible in the mid-Atlantic region

The trimethyl aluminum will then be released in space out over the Atlantic Ocean at altitudes from 50 to 90 miles. NASA said 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 US from parts of South Carolina to New Jersey.

This map shows the projected area in which the chemical tracers released from the rockets may be visible to the public. Credit: NASA/Wallops

This map shows the projected area in which the chemical tracers released from the rockets may be visible to the public in the mid-Atlantic region off the east coast of the US. Credit: NASA/Wallops

So what is NASA hoping to achieve from the short rocket mission? The space agency said it is hoping to garner more insight about the winds that rush through the upper atmosphere jet stream about 60 to 65 miles above Earth’s surface.

In this region, winds travel through a little understood region of Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of 200 to 300 miles per hour, it said.

And because this region is lower than a typical satellite’s orbit and higher than where most planes fly, NASA said this upper atmosphere jet stream is a “perfect” target for such a sounding rocket scientific experiment.

The space agency said the winds in this jet stream were first detected in the 1960s and should not be confused with the lower jet stream, which is located around 30,000 feet, and through which passenger jets fly.

Insight on satellite and communication systems disturbances

It said the rocket experiment will aim to give a better understanding of the high-altitude winds and help scientists better model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems.

Another aim of the experiment is to help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in just a day or two, said the space agency.

“This area shows winds much larger than expected,” says Miguel Larsen, a space scientist at Clemson University who is the principal investigator for the ATREX mission.

“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.”

And while people have launched single rockets before, Laresen said the key aspect of this trip is that NASA is extending the range of measurements to many hundreds of miles.

“The furthest rocket will make it half way to Bermuda,” he said.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic