NASA is getting ready to launch a series of rockets over the U.S. East Coast this week as part of the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX), which will study ultra-high altitude wind 60-65 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The five sounding rockets all will be launched within five minutes of each other from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Once at altitude, they’ll release a chemical tracer — trimethyl aluminum, which forms a milky white cloud. Cameras at two points, in North Carolina and New Jersey, will monitor the tracers as they move through the thermosphere.
Sounding rockets are generally used for research, most often to take measurements of the upper atmosphere, just as they will in this case. Their light weight allows them to get up to the edge of space without quite hitting orbital velocity. Wallops has a slew of rockets dedicated to this type of research, plus a prime location on the Eastern seaboard. ATREX will be using two Terrier-Improved Malemut rockets, two Terrier-Improved Orions and one Terrier-Oriole.
Studying this region, right around the Kármán line that marks the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, could tell us much about the 200-300 mph winds that blow at that altitude. According to NASA:
This rocket experiment is designed to gain 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. The experiment will also help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a mere day or two.
Maybe the more interesting part is that since the experiment requires clear skies, almost anyone from South Carolina to New Jersey should be able to look up and see the rockets and tracer clouds. The hitch, of course, is that it may be in the middle of the night. The first window for launch opens at 11 pm on March 14 and closes at 6:30 am the next day. If the weather is a no-go, they’ll keep trying each night through April 3. You can keep an eye on the Wallops site for updated launch information.