After a week of scrubbed launches, NASA has announced they are “GO” for launch tonight from the NASA Wallops spaceport, where a rocket could trigger a colorful glow high in the sky off of the East Coast. The rocket and a vapor trail it is creating should be visible across a broad area of the eastern U.S. tonight, weather permitting.
NASA has tried many times to launch this rocket without success over the last week. Attempts earlier in the week were scrubbed due to unfavorable weather conditions, most of which were at or above the Virginia spaceport. On Thursday, the launch was postponed again to provide time for inspection of the rocket after the vehicle came in contact with a launcher support during launch preparations. Because more time was needed for that inspection, the launch was pushed to tonight.
While the weather should cooperate on the Virginia coast, the weather is a bit more sketchy by Bermuda and the area between Virginia and Bermuda. Because this launch experiment requires good weather there too, there is a risk of another scrub even if Virginia’s weather is cooperative.
Launching from their Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia, NASA is hoping to kick-off the KiNETic-scale energy and momentum transport eXperiment, known as KiNeT-X for short. A 4-stage Black Brant XII rocket will be launched shortly after 8pm, when a 40-minute launch window opens. The rocket could launch at anytime within that 40 minute window; if any reason prevents the rocket from launching during that window, it would be scrubbed again for another day. Originally NASA has back-up launch days set aside through tomorrow night.
The purpose of this rocket launch is to study a fundamental problem in space plasmas: how are energy and momentum transported between different regions of space that are magnetically connected?
At roughly 9 minutes and 30 seconds after launch at an altitude of about 217-249 miles about 540-560 miles downrange from the Wallops facility and just north of Bermuda, barium vapor will be released into the atmosphere. When this happens, two green-violet clouds could be visible in the sky for about 30 seconds.
According to NASA, the ionized portion of the cloud becomes tied to the magnetic field lines and diffuses parallel to the field lines but not perpendicular to it. In the mid-Atlantic region latitudes, the field lines are inclined by about 45 degrees to the horizontal, so the violet clouds stretch out in a slanted orientation and look more like short trails than a cloud. Because the motion of the neutral portion of the clouds is not constrained by the magnetic field lines, they spread out more quickly and become too thin to see with the naked eye much sooner than the ionized component.
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) May 11, 2021
NASA says the barium vapor being released is not harmful to the environment or public health.
Unlike for larger launches, such as the Cygnus cargo craft launches to the International Space Station, the NASA Visitor Center at Wallops will not be open for launch viewing of this rocket. The facility remains closed to visitors due to the ongoing global pandemic.