John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The spectacle may be visible as far north as Long Island and south as North Carolina.
Take a rainbow and tear and squish it into a bunch of surrealist blobs—that could be the scene over the East Coast tonight, if a NASA rocket test goes according to plan.
The space agency intends to conduct a suborbital launch between 7 and 9 p.m. ET Wednesday from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility. About six minutes after lift-off, more than 100 miles above earth, the rocket will eject payloads stuffed with strontium and barium. These chemicals will waft into the sky and create a “cloud that is blue-green and red in color,” says NASA.
The bizarre spectacle might be witnessed as far north as Long Island, west as Charlottesville, Virginia, and south as Morehead City, North Carolina. (See the above map for the timing of visibility windows.) Look for something like this, an ionized barium-and-strontium symphony from a previous rocket test:
Of course, the launch depends on the weather—it was already delayed from Tuesday due to storminess. The National Weather Service predicts partly cloudy skies in the evening in eastern Virginia and North Carolina, and mostly clear farther north.
What’s this all about? NASA wants to flight-test components meant for future launches and space missions, including a rejiggered Black Brant rocket motor and cutting-edge fabrication methods developed by the (no joke) Game Changing Development program. The chemical tracers will help the agency visualize the “naturally occurring flows of ionized and neutral particles either by luminescing at distinct wavelengths in the visible and infrared part of the spectrum or by scattering sunlight.” Here’s more:
During the test of the deployment system for the vapor clouds, four sub-payloads with mixtures of barium and strontium will be ejected from the main payload and the vapor will be deployed while the payload is descending. The test also will include the release of vapor from two systems on the main payload during the descent portion of the flight….
The barium-strontium mixture produces a cloud with a mixture of blue-green and red color. The blue-green part is neutral, i.e. not charged. Strontium is used to enhance the visibility of the neutral flow.
The amount of barium and strontium used in the test is much smaller than that used in a typical July 4 fireworks display and poses no hazard to the community.