Wednesday, 28 March 2012 02:19
March 28, 2012
NASA launched a new exploration program this week.
Officials at NASA were on hand on Tuesday to witness the launch of the space agency's five-rocket barrage. The organization had suffered through a number of delays in its planned launch of the system, but the weather conditions earlier in the week were favorable, according to officials.
NASA designed the five-rocket barrage as a tool to help scientists test the winds in the high-altitude jet stream that is located approximately 60 miles above the Earth's surface. Popular Science reports that by firing five rockets into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, NASA scientists are hoping to understand how weather patterns in the ionosphere are influenced by the jet stream.
Engineers confirmed on Tuesday that NASA had successfully launched the five suborbital sounding rockets from its Wallops Flight Facility, which is located in Virginia. NASA fired the first rocket just before 5:00 a.m., with each of the other four rockets launched 80 seconds apart. The five rockets make up what NASA has dubbed the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or ATREX Mission.
Each of the five rockets released a chemical tracer that generated white clouds at the edge of space, according to NASA officials. The launch clouds quickly spread, with stargazers as far North as Buffalo, New York, and as far South as Wilmington, North Carolina, reportedly seeing them.
At more than 60 miles above the surface of the Earth, winds and weather conditions vary considerably. A high-altitude jet stream, for example, moves at a pace of anywhere from 200 miles per hour to more than 300 miles per hour, according to Popular Science. High winds and other extreme weather conditions disrupt atmospheric particles, sending them from middle latitudes to polar regions in an instant. At such a high altitude, the Earth's atmosphere is first exposed to the conditions in space, and electrical currents can occur in the ionosphere, potentially impacting satellite and radio communications.
According to NASA researchers, it is exceedingly important that scientists more thoroughly understand the weather conditions at such high altitudes because of their effects on Earth-based technological equipment. The white chemical that all of the rockets dispersed when they launched will be used to monitor such wind patterns. Moreover, two of them are also equipped with instrumental payloads that recorded data in the high-altitude jet steam, including information regarding pressure and temperature.
"This area shows winds much larger than expected," Clemson University aerospace engineer and principal investigator Miguel Larsen said. "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. People have launched single rockets before. 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."
NASA scientists are hoping to glean information about the kind of turbulence that exists in the high-altitude winds. Larsen said that if researchers observe one such kind called three-dimensional turbulence, it would indicate that the winds move in a manner similar to the laws of motion that govern small-scale waves in water. If the rockets detect two-dimensional turbulence, on the other hand, it would suggest the jet stream flow is more directed.
"In 3-D turbulence, one sees complicated movement," Larsen noted. "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."