A Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket is expected to fire off the launch pad from the Wallops Flight Facility (in Virginia) at just 9:00 pm ET tonight. It won’t be the most impressive launch ever seen. In fact, the sounding rocket looks more like a smaller military missile than the enormous rockets we are used to seeing NASA launch.

nasa sounding rocket

UPDATE 4: The weather finally cooperated. Earlier this morning (June 29), NASA’s Wallops facility launched their sounding rocket. And just like NASA advertised, a colorful set of clouds formed. Check out the Wallops Facebook page for a whole bunch of pictures up and down the east coast. Read past the updates to learn why NASA turned the sky blue this morning.

Here’s a timelapse showing the rocket delivering its payload to the upper atmosphere.

UPDATE 3: Weather just isn’t on NASA’s side with this launch. Last night’s scheduled launch (June 19) was postponed again. The folks at Wallops Flight Facility will try it again tonight (June 20) between 9:06 – 9:21 pm ET.

UPDATE 2: Last night’s launch attempt was scrubbed again due to cloudy skies. The next launch attempt is set for Thursday (June 15) between 9:05 – 9:20 pm ET.

UPDATE: Launch scrubbed tonight because of weather. NASA will give it another go tomorrow night.

That’s not to say tonight’s mission won’t put on a show. Tucked on board is a more than 600 pounds worth of canisters that will create a stunning series of artificial clouds with splashes of blue-green and red. If the weather is clear, folks from New York to North Carolina may see these clouds hanging in the night’s sky more than 100 miles up.

nasa color cloud map

The colorful display will form as barium, strontium and cupric-oxide from the canisters mix. Tonight’s main payload tips the scales at nearly 700 pounds, but NASA scientists are also using a canister ejection system to toss ten canisters about 6 to 12 miles away from the main payload.

NASA is assuring everyone the fake clouds pose no threat to people living along the mid-Atlantic coast. I’m sure that won’t stop the usual YouTube conspiracy videos talking about how NASA and the government are trying to control us. Hey, if you made it this long with all the planes spraying chemtrails above you, a handful of colorful clouds shouldn’t hurt.

Why create the colorful clouds?

The vapor tracers (fake clouds) let scientists track how the particles move in space. Ground cameras set up at the Wallops facility and in North Carolina will zoom in as the payloads are deployed around five minutes after launch.

A new canister ejection system lets NASA scientists gather more info over a larger area. All the data gathered tonight will help refine studies of the ionosphere and aurora.

Sounding rockets like the one launching tonight are perfectly suited for studying Earth’s upper atmosphere. NASA’s most important missions shoot past this area as they head for an orbital trajectory or beyond. A sounding rocket only has enough power to last 10 minutes in space, but the data gathered here is still vital.

The ISINGLASS mission used a canister deployment system during launches earlier this year to study the structures of auroras.

Live coverage of tonight’s launch kicks off at 8:30 on the Wallops Ustream page. If you live along the mid-Atlantic coast, take a walk outside a little after 9:00 pm ET and look up. You might catch a glimpse of tonight’s mission in action.

Image credits: NASA

When I’m not playing Rocket League (best game ever), you can find me writing about all things games, space and more. You can reach me at alex@newsledge.com

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