NASA will try again to create colorful clouds in the night sky

A long exposure of the night sky at the Wallops Flight Facility on Chincoteague Island, Virginia.

UPDATE: After five failed attempts, NASA plans to mount a much-anticipated rocket launch Monday night between 9:04 and 9:19 p.m. EDT. The rocket is expected to create a multi-colored light show visible to people along the East Coast from New York to North Carolina.

The launch of the Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket has been delayed several times since its original launch date of May 31st.

Reasons for scrubbing the launch have varied, from strong upper-level winds and clouds to boats in the potential landing area. It is set to launch from Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia tonight as mostly clear skies are expected for much of the East Coast.

ORIGINAL STORY — If you live along the Eastern Seaboard and wake up early Sunday, you could be treated to a colorful sky hours before sunrise.

Blue-green and red clouds could be visible in the predawn sky from New York to North Carolina, thanks to a NASA rocket due to be launched from Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia.

NASA had hoped to launch the rocket early Saturday, but had to scrub the attempt because of boats in the area where the payload is expected to fall back to Earth.

The Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket isn’t even the coolest part of the mission.

Four to five minutes after launch, the rocket is expected to deploy 10 canisters about the size of soft drink cans, each containing a colored vapor that forms artificial, luminescent clouds.

The clouds, or vapor tracers, are formed “through the interaction of barium, strontium, and cupric-oxide,” according to NASA.

Since the canisters will be released about 100 miles (160 kilometers) above the ground, the space agency says they “pose absolutely no hazard to residents along the mid-Atlantic coast.” Sounding rockets have been used for more than 40 years to carry science payloads on missions that last just five to 20 minutes.

The vapor tracers will allow scientists on the ground to view the movement of the particles in the ionosphere, a part of the Earth’s atmosphere that stretches to the edge of space, to learn more about the movement of the air currents at that altitude.

The whole mission will last only about eight minutes before the payload lands in the Atlantic Ocean, about 90 miles out to sea from its launch point in Virginia.

Morning coffee with a light show

“The vapor tracers could be visible from New York to North Carolina and westward to Charlottesville, Virginia,” NASA said.

Clear skies are predicted for the entire zone at that time, the CNN Weather Center reports. Clear skies are preferred for the launch since the mission involves observing the motion of the colored clouds using ground cameras in Virginia and North Carolina.

Sunday’s attempt will be the fourth for the launch. Wind and cloudy skies hampered the first two attempts. Backup launch dates are available each morning through June 6, if needed.

If you’re near the eastern US coast, look toward the eastern horizon beginning about 4:30 a.m. The farther you are from the launch location, the lower the clouds will appear on the horizon.

If you are north of the launch site — say, in Washington, Philadelphia or New York — the clouds will appear in the lower southeastern sky. If you are to the south — in Norfolk, Virginia Beach or the Outer Banks of North Carolina — look toward the northeastern horizon. Richmond and Charlottesville residents should be able to see the clouds directly to the east.

Not on the East Coast? No worries — NASA has you covered with a livestream beginning at 3:35 a.m., and continuous updates on the Wallops Facebook and Twitter sites. Smartphone users can download the “What’s Up at Wallops” app to get more launch information, NASA says.

By Brandon Miller

CNN Meteorologist