NASA has scheduled an atmospheric light show for the wee hours of Wednesday morning, when the Agency intends to launch five sub-orbital rockets (complete with luminescent chemical tracers) in an experiment designed to test the flow of jet streams on the edge of space. Best of all? A good portion of the East Coast is invited to watch. Find out when and where to look.
Hold up, why is NASA launching rockets?
If you're already familiar with ATREX, you'll find info on when and where to look below. If not, here's some background.
Between 62 and 68 miles above Earth's surface, where our planet's atmosphere runs up against the boundary of space, there are air currents whipping around at upwards of three hundred miles per hour. Scientists have known about these high-altitude jet streams for years, but they've been notoriously difficult to study. Now, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will attempt to shed some light on these peculiar phenomena with the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or "ATREX" for short. And fortunately for those of us on the East Coast, ATREX (as its name suggests) involves rockets — bright, gleaming, night-sky-illuminating rockets.
The ATREX mission plays out like this: five rockets are fired off over the course of just over five minutes from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA. Once they're airborne, the rockets will release a specially designed chemical tracer that reacts with oxygen to form bright, milky-white clouds that scientists will use to track the movement jet streams at the edge of space from ground cameras positioned in Virginia, North Carolina and New Jersey. (The rockets being used for the mission are two Terrier-Improved Orions, one Terrier-Oriole and two Terrier-Improved Malemutes, depicted on the left, center, and right of the top image, respectively.)
And here's the fun part: according to NASA, the rockets' luminescent tracer clouds should remain visible for up to 20 minutes from regions of the East Coast circled in the figure shown below. NASA needs very clear skies to pull this experiment off, not just over the Atlantic, but in New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina as well (it's already been delayed multiple times now on account of sub-optimal viewing conditions), so there's a good chance visibility will be about as good as any of us can expect it to be in this scenario.
When and Where to Look
The countdown begins Tuesday, March 20 at 7 p.m. EDT with the launch window opening at midnight on March 21 and running until 5 a.m. on March 21.
In other words, the launch is scheduled to occur at any time in the window between midnight and 5 am on the morning of March 21st.
SPACE.com is reporting that the key to catching a glimpse of the chemical trails with your own eyes is to live within the viewing radius (depicted in the image shown here), and to have a clear view of the horizon in the direction of Wallops Island, VA, where NASA will be launching the rockets:
For example, a viewer in Raleigh, N.C. should look toward the northeast; in Providence, R.I., observers should face southwest; in Philadelphia, Pa., the view will be toward the southeast.
The Wallops Flight Facility Visitor's Center will also be open to local viewers on launch night starting at 10 pm EDT. The Visitor's Center is located on VA 175 near Chincoteague Island, Va. Phone: (757) 824-2298 or 824-1344.
Those outside the viewing radius or with an obstructed view of the horizon can also tune in over at NASA for a live webcast of the launch. The webcast will begin 2 hours before the opening of the launch window (between midnight and 5 am, EST, the morning of the 21st.)
Remember: There's a chance that tonight's launch will be cancelled, just like it's been cancelled several times before, so be sure to check in on Facebook and Twitter to make sure the launch is still on. Be that as it may, NASA is determined to launch these rockets SOME time before April 3rd, and always during the midnight—5am launch window.
Top image by NASA/Wallops