On Thursday, June 29th, at 4:25 am Eastern time, a two stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket blasted skyward from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. During its eight-minute flight, the sounding rocket deployed 10 canisters beyond the edge of space, where they released blue-green and red vapor tracers to form artificial clouds. The purpose of this admittedly suspicious-sounding activity was not to deliver mind-control agents into our air supply, but rather, to track the motions of particles in the electrically-charged portion of our atmosphere called the ionosphere.
It’s in this same part of our atmosphere that collisions with charged particles from the Sun energize atoms, causing them to light up and produce the brilliant aurora displays seen over our planet’s poles.
A secondary purpose, of course, was to wow Earthlings with the sort of pre-July 4th fireworks display only a space agency could pull off. (Obviously, delaying the mission over half a dozen times was all part of the plan.) To that end, NASA was successful: According to a press release, Wallops received roughly 2,000 reports and photos of cloud signings, from New York to North Carolina.
Here’s what some of the pro-active folks who stepped outside last night to catch the light show saw.