NASA launched a rocket that created colorful clouds in
space on June 29.
Such clouds are being used to probe two big holes
in Earth’s magnetic shield, called cusps.
NASA Wallops Flight Facility released a time-lapse
video of the vapor puffs.
For the last month, NASA had been waiting for the right moment to
launch clouds of red and blue-green vapor out into space.
On June 29, that moment finally came. A NASA sounding rocket
launched at 4:25 a.m. EST from the agency’s Wallops Flight
Facility in Virginia, and shot out 10 canisters about
the size of a soda can, according to the agency.
The cans deployed blue-green and red vapor, which brightly
colored puffs of “tracer
vapors” that were seen from New York to North
Carolina. These clouds allow scientists on the ground
to visually track how and where particles move in space.
Here’s what the clouds looked like:
The rocket was originally supposed to launch on May 31, but poor
visibility and bad weather conditions delayed the mission a
number of times. These space clouds weren’t merely for
The experiment was one of many missions in an international
“Grand Challenge” initiative aimed at
helping scientists probe two gaping holes in Earth’s protective
magnetic shield, called cusps.
The two holes in our invisible shield leak nearly
100 tons of air per day, according to Astronomy Now.
Probing Earth’s leaky atmosphere
The magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet is vital to life,
since it deflects the sun’s constant wind of high-energy
particles — and protects against the occasional
solar storm. Without this invisible force field, Earth may
have gone the way of Mars, which lost its magnetic dynamo
billions of years ago. That allowed the sun to blow most of the
into deep space, turning a once wet and
potentially habitable world into a dry and nearly
airless global desert.
We won’t run out of air anytime soon (thankfully, our planet has
quadrillions of tons left), but scientists are still struggling
to understand how the cusps work. In particular, they want to
make them visible — which is where the colored clouds
came into play.
Launching tracer vapors such as barium (green), cupric-oxide
(blue-green), and strontium (red) into the Earth’s ionosphere —
where charged air particles and the solar wind interact
— helps scientists see how particles move
that the region. This data could then help verify and update
computer models of the fringes of Earth’s atmosphere.
Those models, in turn, may help researchers better understand all
sorts of high-altitude phenomena, including auroras,
geomagnetic storms — and why a planet like Mars lost all its
air while ours has held on to its atmosphere.
Launching space clouds
Keith Koehler, a NASA Wallops spokesperson, said that nearly
all past tracer-vapor missions, except for a few recent
test launches, have spewed the vapors directly out of
the rocket body. But that has limited the data that
scientists can collect from the ground, since the colored
clouds wound up close together and were often hard to
The new launch used new method: The rocket shot lightweight
aluminum canisters, called ampules, out of its sides. The
canisters traveled 6 to 12 miles before they started releasing
vapor, which made the constellation of colored clouds
easier to distinguish and follow.
The chemical tracer clouds are designed to react to
sunlight. The launch therefore happened when it was still dark on
the ground but the sun was visible from space to maximize
“These launches have to occur just after sunset or right before
sunrise. You need sunlight to hit the vapors and activate them as
they’re released,” Koehler said, adding that these vapors should
not be confused with the Aurora Borealis that’s typically
seen in far northern regions of the world.
“Auroras dance across the sky, and this is not that,” he said.