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If You See Technicolor Clouds on the US East Coast Tonight, This Is Why

NASA plans to deploy multicolored fake clouds over the eastern seaboard.
Image from a previous vapor tracer deployment. Image: NASA

Update: The June 12 launch was scrubbed due to cloudy weather. Another launch attempt has been scheduled for Tuesday night.

Update 2: The June 13 launch was also scrubbed, for the same reason. NASA will try again on Thursday.

If you happen to be see some trippy red and bluish-green clouds adorning the sky over the US eastern seaboard this evening, don't worry: You are not hallucinating.

NASA plans to launch a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket—yes, that is the vehicle's real model name—between 9:04 and 9:19 PM EDT on Monday from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Between four and six minutes after the launch, 10 canisters of colorful barium, strontium, and cupric-oxide gas will be ejected from the vehicle, forming artificial clouds called "vapor tracers" at altitudes of between 96 to 124 miles. They will pose no harm to residents of the surrounding area, NASA said.


Read More: A Bridge Built by Rockets

Cameras set up at Wallops and a station in Duck, North Carolina will record the tracers, providing visual observations of particle motion within the ionosphere, the layer of Earth's atmosphere in which particles are ionized by solar and cosmic radiation. The barium cloud will ionize quickly into a purplish red color, illuminating the trajectories of charged particles in the ionosphere, while the strontium and cupric-oxide vapors reveal the motions of neutral particles.

Visibility radius of the vapor tracers over time. Image: NASA

Five previous attempts to launch the Terrier-Improved Malemute, and its chromatic canisters, have been scrubbed for reasons ranging from unsuitable weather to boat traffic interference. Assuming the launch and deployment on Monday proceeds as planned, these flashy smoke-bombs will be visible to skywatchers between the coast of New York and North Carolina.

For those located elsewhere who want to tune in, the Wallops Flight Facility will be hosting a livestream of the experiment, beginning at 8:30 PM Eastern time.

As the old saying goes: red skies in the morning, sailors take warning, technicolor clouds at night, scientists' delight.

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