- NASA launched a rocket that created colourful clouds in space on June 29.
- Such clouds are being used to probe two big holes in Earth’s magnetic shield, called cusps.
- NASA Wallops Flight Facility released a time-lapse video of the vapour puffs.
For the last month, NASA had been waiting for the right moment to launch clouds of red and blue-green vapour out into space.
On June 29, that moment finally came. A NASA sounding rocket launched at 4:25 a.m. EST from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and shot out 10 canisters about the size of a soda can, according to the agency.
The cans deployed blue-green and red vapour, which brightly coloured puffs of “tracer vapors” that were seen from New York to North Carolina. These clouds allow scientists on the ground to visually track how and where particles move in space.
Here’s what the clouds looked like:
The rocket was originally supposed to launch on May 31, but poor visibility and bad weather conditions delayed the mission a number of times. These space clouds weren’t merely for show, however.
The experiment was one of many missions in an international “Grand Challenge” initiative aimed at helping scientists probe two gaping holes in Earth’s protective magnetic shield, called cusps.
The two holes in our invisible shield leak nearly 100 tons of air per day, according to Astronomy Now.
Probing Earth’s leaky atmosphere
The magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet is vital to life, since it deflects the sun’s constant wind of high-energy particles — and protects against the occasional solar storm. Without this invisible force field, Earth may have gone the way of Mars, which lost its magnetic dynamo billions of years ago. That allowed the sun to blow most of the Martian atmosphere into deep space, turning a once wet and potentially habitable world into a dry and nearly airless global desert.
We won’t run out of air anytime soon (thankfully, our planet has quadrillions of tons left), but scientists are still struggling to understand how the cusps work. In particular, they want to make them visible — which is where the coloured clouds came into play.
Launching tracer vapors such as barium (green), cupric-oxide (blue-green), and strontium (red) into the Earth’s ionosphere — where charged air particles and the solar wind interact — helps scientists see how particles move that the region. This data could then help verify and update computer models of the fringes of Earth’s atmosphere.
Those models, in turn, may help researchers better understand all sorts of high-altitude phenomena, including auroras, geomagnetic storms — and why a planet like Mars lost all its air while ours has held on to its atmosphere.
Launching space clouds
Keith Koehler, a NASA Wallops spokesperson, said that nearly all past tracer-vapour missions, except for a few recent test launches, have spewed the vapors directly out of the rocket body. But that has limited the data that scientists can collect from the ground, since the coloured clouds wound up close together and were often hard to distinguish.
The new launch used new method: The rocket shot lightweight aluminium canisters, called ampules, out of its sides. The canisters travelled 6 to 12 miles before they started releasing vapour, which made the constellation of coloured clouds easier to distinguish and follow.
The chemical tracer clouds are designed to react to sunlight. The launch therefore happened when it was still dark on the ground but the sun was visible from space to maximise their visibility.
“These launches have to occur just after sunset or right before sunrise. You need sunlight to hit the vapors and activate them as they’re released,” Koehler said, adding that these vapors should not be confused with the Aurora Borealis that’s typically seen in far northern regions of the world.
“Auroras dance across the sky, and this is not that,” he said.