Press Release

NASA Rocket Launches from Virginia: Nighttime Clouds Shed Light on Space Weather

By SpaceRef Editor
June 19, 2003
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NASA is looking for the opportunity, beginning June 23,
to launch rocket experiments that will form nighttime clouds
in a project intended to shed light on space weather.

Three of the four rocket experiments, launched from the NASA
Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., will include
the formation of milky, white clouds. The clouds will allow
scientists to view winds in a high and poorly accessible
layer of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere. The
ionosphere is strongly affected by solar activity, such as
solar flares and UV radiation from sunspots. The state of
the ionosphere affects such things as radio communications
and Global Positioning System reception on Earth.

The clouds from each experiment may be visible, for up to 20
minutes, by residents in the mid-Atlantic region, the lower
northeastern United States and South Carolina. The chemicals
used to make the clouds pose no danger to the public.

The clouds will allow scientists to monitor the Earth’s
winds at the edge of space, said Dr. Gregory Earle from the
University of Texas in Dallas, the lead researcher for the

“Winds in the ionosphere impact space weather just as the
winds on Earth impact our weather. Space weather in turn can
affect satellites orbiting the Earth and communication and
electrical systems on the ground,” Earle said. “The clouds
will act as a tracer and allow us to view the winds at
various altitudes over a period of time.”

“The data gathered from this project will aid in our
understanding of the relationship between the winds and
ionospheric activity. This research may one day lead to the
ability to forecast space weather, just as forecasters do
today for Earth weather. If we can forecast space weather,
then we can better protect our systems in space and on
Earth,” Earle said.

The time and day of launch depends on two major factors:
clear skies are required at two of three special camera
sites located along the Virginia and North Carolina coast;
and a layer of ionized particles must form in the upper
layers of the ionosphere and begin to descend.

All four launches will occur in one night between 9:30 p.m.
and 5 a.m., EDT, June 23 through July 10. There will be
about 90 minutes between the launch of the first, second and
third rockets. The third and fourth rockets will be launched
about 10 minutes apart. The actual period between launches
will be decided in real-time as the mission occurs.

The milky white clouds form from the release of
trimethylaluminum (TMA) on the first, second and fourth
rockets. The third rocket carries only scientific
instruments. The TMA will be released in space over the
Atlantic Ocean at altitudes from 56 miles (90 kilometers) to
109 miles (175 kilometers). The clouds will take about four
to five minutes to form after the TMA release. NASA has used
TMA for decades as part of rocket studies from sites
worldwide to study the near-space environment. TMA burns
slowly and produces visible light that can be tracked
visually and with special camera equipment.

The products of the reaction, when TMA is exposed to air or
water, are aluminum oxide, carbon dioxide and water.
Aluminum oxides are commonly used to combat heartburn and to
purify drinking water. TMA poses no threat to the public
during preparation on the ground or during the release in

The project is a NASA and multi-university effort. In
addition to the University of Texas, students and personnel
from Clemson University and Utah State University are
participating in the mission.

The public can keep track of the progress of the mission by
calling the NASA Wallops Flight Facility launch status line
at: 757/824-2050.

NASA will have a Web site with text updates and live video
of the launches during the mission at:

For information about NASA, space science, rocketry and
space flight on the Internet, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.