While the world waits with bated breath where an out of control Chinese rocket will impact this weekend, NASA is planning a launch of its own and the rocket and a vapor trail it is creating should be visible across a broad area of the eastern U.S. Saturday night, weather permitting.
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 no earlier than 8:02pm ET Saturday night. A 40-minute launch window is open for the rocket to lift-off from; if the rocket fails to launch for any reason, they will attempt it again the following day. Back-up dates through to May 16 have been created in case they’re needed.
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.
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.