March launch madness at Wallops Island to probe upper atmosphere

From the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA jet stream study will light up the night sky - 5 sounding rockets to launch into upper atmosphere within 5 minutes

NASA plans to launches five rockets in approximately five minutes to study the high-altitude jet stream from its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX), a heliophysics mission, will gather information needed to better understand the process responsible for the high-altitude jet stream located 60 to 65 miles above the surface of the Earth. The rockets being used for the ATREX mission are two Terrier-Improved Orions (left), one Terrier-Oriole (center) and two Terrier-Improved Malemutes (right). The ATREX launches will take place between March 14 and April 4. The five rockets will release a chemical tracer that will form milky, white tracer clouds that allow scientists and the public to "see" the winds in space. Credit: NASA/Wallops

High in the sky, 60 to 65 miles above Earth’s surface, winds rush through a little understood region of Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of 200 to 300 miles per hour. Lower than a typical satellite’s orbit, higher than where most planes fly, this upper atmosphere jet stream makes a perfect target for a particular kind of scientific experiment: the sounding rocket. Some 35 to 40 feet long, sounding rockets shoot up into the sky for short journeys of eight to ten minutes, allowing scientists to probe difficult-to-reach layers of the atmosphere.

In March, NASA will launch five such rockets in approximately five minutes to study these high-altitude winds and their intimate connection to the complicated electrical current patterns that surround Earth. First noticed in the 1960s, the winds in this jet stream shouldn’t be confused with the lower jet stream located around 30,000 feet, through which passenger jets fly and which is reported in weather forecasts. This rocket experiment is designed to gain a better understanding of the high-altitude winds and help scientists better model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems. The experiment will also help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a mere day or two.

Caption: This is the location of the two known jet streams in the atmosphere. Credit: Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

“This area shows winds much larger than expected,” says Miguel Larsen, a space scientist at Clemson University who is the principal investigator for these five rockets, known as the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX). “We don’t yet know what we’re going to see, but there is definitely something unusual going on. ATREX will help us understand the big question about what is driving these fast winds.”

Determining what drives these winds requires precise understanding of the way the winds move and what kind of turbulence they show. To get an idea of the task at hand, imagine mapping not just the ups and downs of ocean waves but the attendant surf, undertow, and tides, all from 60 miles away and in only 20 minutes. To accomplish this, the five sounding rockets will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia releasing a chemical tracer into the air. The chemical – a substance called trimethyl aluminum (TMA) — forms milky, white clouds that allow those on the ground to “see” the winds in space and track them with cameras. In addition, two of the rockets will have instrumented payloads to measure pressure and temperature in the atmosphere.

Combined photo of four chemical tracer trails in the atmosphere.

Four trimethyl aluminum (TMA) trails from a prior mission flown from Poker Flat, Alaska, in February 2009. Credit: Miguel Larsen/Clemson Univ. Click to enlarge

The rockets will be launched on a clear night within a period of minutes, so the trails can all be seen at the same time. The trimethyl aluminum will then be released in space out over the Atlantic Ocean at altitudes from 50 to 90 miles. The cloud tracers will last for up to 20 minutes and will be visible in the mid-Atlantic region, and along the east coast of the United States from parts of South Carolina to New Jersey.

“People have launched single rockets before,” says Larsen. “But the key here is that we’re extending the range of measurements to many hundreds of miles. The furthest rocket will make it half way to Bermuda.”

Map of the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region with ATREX flight visibility region and flight trajectory indicated.

The map of the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. shows the projected area where the rockets may be visible while the motors are burning through flight. It also shows the flight profile of each of the five rockets. Credit: NASA/Wallops

Sounding rockets are usually launched one or two at a time, so launching five at once will call for specific timing and direction to gather the required data. The rockets must be launched on a clear night between March 14 and April 3. Scientists will then use special camera equipment to track the five clouds and measure how quickly they move away from each other. They can then plug this information into equations that will describe what kind of turbulence exists in the winds.

One possible kind of turbulence is called three-dimensional turbulence, turbulence much like what one sees flowing down a river and swirling around rocks or in gusting winds on Earth. If this is seen, it would suggest the winds move with laws of motion similar to those governing small-scale waves in water. Such waves might be driven by heat in the atmosphere that varies in the course of a day. This would jibe with one of the original theories for how the winds are created, and indeed there are those who think of this region as a kind of atmospheric “surf zone” in the sky. Another view is that the winds at that height are too fast to jibe with this model. Moreover, man-made tracers, such as Space Shuttle exhaust, do not break up and dissipate as one might expect from such turbulence, but remain remarkably coherent.

On the other hand, if ATREX sees winds that exhibit what’s called two-dimensional turbulence, this would support a model based on a more directed, jet stream flow.

“In 3-D turbulence, one sees complicated movement,” says Larsen. “But there’s a tendency for 2-D turbulence to behave almost in the opposite manner – the airflow coalesces into single streams, like a jet stream.”

This kind of airflow would also be strongly enhanced by the combination of electrical currents in the region and the rate of the Earth’s rotation. Together, this connection might result in the fast, coherent streams of air so far observed.

The rockets being used for the mission are two Terrier-Improved Malemutes, two Terrier-Improved Orions and one Terrier-Oriole. In order for the launches to occur, clear skies are required at three special camera sites located along the coast in Virginia, North Carolina and New Jersey.

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 vapor. Aluminum oxides are used to combat heartburn and to purify drinking water. Also, all three products occur naturally in the atmosphere. The TMA poses no threat to the public during preparation on the ground or during the release in space.

###

To try to spot the sounding rocket trails, follow the launch status updates at:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/missions/atrex.html

About these ads

29 thoughts on “March launch madness at Wallops Island to probe upper atmosphere

  1. I’m right up the road from boballab in Rehoboth Beach, DE. Looking forward to the show.

  2. 200 to 300 miles per hour? This is permanent tropical storm strength X all
    around the globe?
    I hope they can find out more about air mass losses hurled into space this
    way …
    I read the planet is followed by a massive air trail lost in space…..which is
    missing in IPCC Warmist scenarios which bloat warming by not taking air
    losses from areas above the Karman line into calculations…..
    Progress then, another step into the right direction….
    JS

  3. Where can I buy ticket? ;)

    Was suppose to see a live space shuttle launch but it got cancelled :(. This would be the next best thing!

  4. This all sounds good to me. Just think of it we will measure stuff and them try and model it not model it first. Maybe I misunderstood. This sound way to much like normal not post-normal science.

  5. “This area shows winds much larger than expected,” says Miguel Larsen, a space scientist at Clemson University
    ====================
    ….. ‘kin hell, it’s worse than we thought, and they haven’t even got the data yet !!!

  6. “This area shows winds much larger than expected,” ….“We don’t yet know what we’re going to see, but there is definitely something unusual going on.
    Modeling the atmosphere is like trying to model a high pressure fire hose as it whips around. Predict it’s movement? Good luck.

  7. So this is legitimate chem *BLEEP* research? I wonder if they had to file a environmental impact report with the EPA before this multiple launch was given the green light. After all, “[t]he products of the reaction when TMA is exposed to air or water are aluminum oxide, carbon dioxide and water vapor.” Isn’t carbon dioxide EEEE-VIL?

  8. What a waste of mega-millions.

    Closer to earth, we’d just be looking at Doppler radar like every Tom, Dick, and Harriette weather talking head. I have a feeling the same technology could be applied in the upper troposphere.

    Didja all notice how NOAA got all kinds of press fulminating about the HUGE solar flare/CME? Jeez, turned out to be a dud. Of course, NOAA knew that a priori because the CME broadcast was out of the plane of the ecliptic – – – – but that didn’t stop the hype-machine

    Most science press-releases just make me say “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But so what?!”

  9. I well remember NASA launches from Wallops Island in the 1960s that released chemicals into the atmosphere. We children were told to watch the night sky to observe the show.

  10. “Aluminum oxides are used to combat heartburn and to purify drinking water.”

    I had to laugh when I read this on NASA this morning. Clueless press release authors. If they wanted to indicate that Aluminum oxides are harmless, they should have just mentioned that they are one of the major components of clay and are found in atmospheric dust.

  11. boballab says:
    March 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm
    “I got a ringside seat since I live just outside Ocean City Md!”

    boballab,
    I envy you – seriously! Do you have a good video camera? Please record and post!!

  12. Joachim Seifert, 300 mph is about 17,000 mph too slow to go into orbit- the winds do not cause any escape of air from the planet’s gravity well. While the winds are faster than those in hurricanes in the troposphere, the pressure above 100 km is less than a millionth of that at earth’s surface, and the wind would have nearly zero effect on a solid object.

    A tiny amount of high altitude air is ionized by sunlight, but only the lightest atoms, such as hydrogen or helium, can escape. The mass flow is insignificant to climate.

    • To Dough Jones:
      This is the general Warmist crap reheated… why dont you put a glass house
      surface over it as well for preventing atmospheric losses and mass exchange
      into space ?
      …..All aimed at keeping IPCC Warmist GCMs without mass losses which would
      in fact reduce the GHG effect,
      please see a recent post “Giant veil of cold plasma detected high above Earth…”
      …here you find the atmospheric bones, on which the Sun chewed, the atmospheric
      dumping ground….
      You physical reasoningin missing the moon gravitation, which is so strong that it
      oblates the Earth and lifts oceans for several meters, so powerful that there is
      “Tide powerplants” to convert Moon forces into electricity…..
      and you reckon that the Moon is not capable to pull molecules further up
      into space where they get balanced under “LOSSES”?
      The hurrican turbulences also do contribute to speed up molecules …
      I would not be surprised if the Moons gravitation forces are the cause
      for speedening hurricans high above Earth in this Karman zone….
      JS

  13. @John W. Garrett
    March 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    I was thinking of the same thing when I read this. I saw those as a kid living outside of D.C. Red and green clouds IIRC. My dad worked for NASA at the time, and said they were barium clouds that were part of some experiment. Pretty cool.

  14. DesertYote:
    I was wondering that too… we do tend to be biased against something that has a “chemical” name… whereas “dirt” is okay. Clay. Rock. Seawater. They’re all okay, because they are natural, but Aluminum Oxide is…. scary… because it’s a chemical. I’d like to see someone chewing on a hunk of the Oilsands… right off the ground. That’s natural. Or some high grade Uranium ore…

    Also, the amount of ANYthing those rockets could carry up and dump in that part of the atmosphere would be harmless. But we, humans, don’t really have a sense of scale when it comes to the atmosphere, do we? Some of us are still under the illusion that our car, or our old car’s A/C, made some kind of measurable difference to the planet.

  15. It’s good to experiment. Your graphic gives the impression that Cumulus clouds fail to get higher than 5 miles 30,000ft. Not exactly true. I tried, with a crew, in a Vulcan jet, to climb out of clear air turbulence associated with some giant growing cumulus. At 63,000ft we gave up. severe turbulence was still around. the clouds wear still growing to above us probably to 70,000+. This was over the Indian Ocean 1965 ish.

  16. These winds (relative to the earth’s surface) don’t happen to be traveling east to west do they? A fixed location on the surface of the earth is spinning under a fixed location above the earth at 1000 miles per hour. I’m sure someone is going to correct me in my thinking here.

  17. GeologyJim says:
    March 9, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Closer to earth, we’d just be looking at Doppler radar like every Tom, Dick, and Harriette weather talking head. I have a feeling the same technology could be applied in the upper troposphere.

    You need to expand your science beyond Geology, Jim.

    Doppler radar needs something to reflect from, e.g. precipitation or birds. At 60 miles (300,000 ft) we’re above the upper troposphere and above the stratosphere. Assignment – figure out the atmospheric pressure there and report back. Bonus points for identifying radar targets that stay at that level long enough to track the wind.

  18. DesertYote says:
    March 9, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    “Aluminum oxides are used to combat heartburn and to purify drinking water.”

    I had to laugh when I read this on NASA this morning. Clueless press release authors.

    Note how deftly they ignored the exhaust from the rocket engines – they’ll be dumping a lot more chemicals into the atmosphere.

    (Or molecules – Science News seems to have stooped that low when they’re describing beneficial chemicals and larger things like enzymes that don’t have a meaningful chemical description.)

    I’m full of chemicals and I’m proud of it!

  19. Years ago I was in an aircraft well off the coast of Charleston, SC right after sundown. Suddenly there appeared a very large purple with sparkles fireball. I thought WWII had just begun. I called up the aircraft reporting station on the shortwave radio and they said not to worry just some testing from Wallops Island. Scared the heck out of me.

  20. Aluminum oxides are used to combat heartburn and to purify drinking water.

    I’m more used to thinking aluminum oxide is a common abrasive, used from sandpaper to grinding wheels to grinding compounds, and you should always avoid breathing in dust from grinding and keep the residues out of your mouth, nose, and eyes. But then I’m afflicted with too much ground-level real-world experience to understand atmospheric rocket science. ;-)

  21. Ric Werme [March 10, 2012 at 6:14 am]

    “…Note how deftly they ignored the exhaust from the rocket engines – they’ll be dumping a lot more chemicals into the atmosphere.”

    I’m not sure what the sustainer used for fuel (the warhead part), but on an SM-1 launch (no Terrier booster) I saw one loose a fin on launch, plunge into the water about 500 feet out from the ship, then re-emerge on a seriously wild arsed trajectory before it self destructed.

    It was most impressive. Scared the @#$ out of the crew on the ship though.

Comments are closed.