NASA plans to make red and green clouds burst from the sky — for science, guys. The test launch of a research rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, designed to release these colorful vapors into the atmosphere, was postponed Sunday morning due to interference from actual clouds, but NASA still hopes to douse our mid-Atlantic skies with color as early as June 11.
Once the 16-inch diameter Terrier Malemute rocket is able to blast off, it will travel between 96 and 124 miles in altitude, open up little doors on its side, and release soda can-sized canisters into the air, filled with the vivid vapors. These psychedelic clouds and the dispersed remnants may be visible from New York to North Carolina, and as far west as Charlottesville, Virginia. These tracers, explains NASA, will occupy the high reaches of our atmosphere and pose no threat to the denizens below.
By watching how these conspicuous clouds move and disperse, NASA scientists will improve their understanding of Earth’s ionosphere, the upper reaches of our atmosphere where harsh solar radiation pummels the region’s atoms and molecules, knocking off electrons and thereby creating a high-altitude, electron-rich world. The ionosphere plays a crucial role in helping us communicate, as its super-charged environs help transport our long-distance radio signals.
Although greenish clouds may be a new sight for some Americans, NASA has been rocketing vapor into the ionosphere since the 1950s. Satellites are positioned to high Earth orbit to study the happenings in our near-space atmosphere, so NASA’s research rockets — also called sounding rockets — make giant U-shaped journeys into the sky, with the discarded rockets usually plummeting into the sea. Sometimes the rockets release scientific instruments, and at other times they release these colorful vapors.