NASA launches five rockets in five minutes!

By Phil Plait | March 27, 2012 8:53 am

Last night, off the coast of Virginia, NASA launched five small rockets in in five minutes to test the winds of the upper atmosphere. The rockets flew up to a height of about 100 km (60 miles) and released a chemical that was blown by those winds, forming an amazing, milky, ghostly scene:


The mission was called ATREX, for Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment. The winds at this height above the Earth’s surface aren’t terribly well understood. This is far above where airplanes fly, but still well below the height of satellites. By releasing this (harmless) chemical and allowing the winds to blow it around, scientists could trace how these winds flow.

Last night’s launch took a while to get off the ground; there had been a few delays due to weather, and even holdups due to ships in the “red zone” in the Atlantic downrange from the launch site. The launches were visible for hundreds of kilometers up and down the coast. If you saw the launches and have pictures, NASA invites you to upload them to their Flickr group.

NASA has a gallery of their own images from the launch online, and they’re worth looking at. And this is a pretty interesting experiment. The height where these winds are located are where meteors burn up. Sometimes meteors burn up and leave a long tail of glowing debris that can stay lit for minutes. Called a persistent train, these can take on weird, twisted shapes as the winds blow them around. It’s amazing to think we don’t know that much about a part of the atmosphere not too far above our heads, and it makes me happy that scientists are — as usual — working hard to understand our planet better.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Comments (12)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    High Five NASA! ūüėČ 8)

  2. Grizzly

    It’s sad that my first thought after reading this wasn’t “Wow, cool!”, but “Oh no, another thing for the chemtrail crowd to fixate on.”


    Still, my second thought was and remains “Wow, cool!”

  3. Blargh

    Grizzly: … exactly my first thought as well, sadly enough.

    BTW, a video of the launch is available at Phil’s first link.

  4. David Schilling

    Sad that my first thought was about the chem-trail loonies also…. I’ve tried to have some “discussions” with some chem-trail believers on FB… their ignorance, lack of basic scientific knowledge, and conspiracy mongering know no limits. To save my sanity I just walked away.

  5. Jeff

    Neil Tyson was interviewed by a good journalist named Tavis Smiley

    we need inspirational public appearances to get the space program back on track. I run into an engineer student or two these days saying they are going to work at JPL on robotic engineering for NASA, but the 99% of kids just ignore them. We need a public enthusiasm to save this manned space program. Neil is great.

  6. Ryan

    Grizzly: I thought the same thing too.
    Phil, what harmless chemical was it?

  7. Photoelectric Effect

    I saw this this morning when I was out walking my dog. Pretty cool.

  8. The plume is squirted trimethylaluminum that instantly (oh yes indeed!) burns to micronized aluminum oxide. One kilogram of Me3Al burns to 1.4 kg Al2O3.

    Adding reflectve H2SO4 haze to the stratosphere will Officially reverse Climate Change (and end astronomy) by transporting megatonnes of SO2. Compare mass efficiency by merely leaving the sulfur in aircraft fuel. Where is the vigorish in that?

  9. @Grizzly – that was my very first thought too.

  10. Satan Claws

    Cue the chemtrail crowd freakout in 5, 4, 3…

  11. In response 5 above, Jeff wrote:

    “I run into an engineer student or two these days saying they are going to work at JPL on robotic engineering for NASA, but the 99% of kids just ignore them.”

    99% of the kids have ALWAYS ignored the brainy sciency ones. They’re too busy finding dates or vandalizing my front lawn, the young whippersnappers.

  12. Grand Lunar

    I was wondering if they’d pull it off.
    Good job to the launch team!

    I wonder what weird results might come from this research.


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