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article imageNASA is going to light up the night sky with vapor tracers

By Brian Booker     Oct 7, 2015 in Science
NASA will be putting on a light show Wednesday night using a barium and strontium lasers to test the viability of some new rocket tech, and to get a glimpse at naturally occurring ion flows.
In an effort to test the viability of using rockets to study the upper atmosphere, and to further work on delivering payloads into space, NASA is looking to light up the night sky for everyone living in the mid-Atlantic seaboard region. Releasing colorful tracers made of barium and strontium into the atmosphere, NASA will be creating cloud trails of blue-green and red in the sky between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. tonight.
For those of us living between central Long Island, New York, and Jacksonville, North Carolina, NASA's experiment will result in a beautiful light show. NASA, however, has more ambitious goals in mind than keeping us entertained. Researchers are looking to study the flow of ionized and neutral particles using a sounding rocket that will inject tracers into the upper atmosphere.
The tracers work by scattering light, and also by luminescing at particular wavelengths in both the visible and infrared spectrum. So what's that mean for us Earthlings down here on Planet Earth? You can expect to see beautiful, swirling “snakes” of color in the night sky.
Sounding rockets are normally used to deliver orbital payloads, such as satellites, into space. Using a variety of emerging technologies, such as 3D printing and near net shaping, scientists have modified the rocket so that it can be used to study the upper atmosphere. The upcoming space launch will allow NASA to test the limits of these new manufacturing processes.
Near net shaping, for example, allows pieces of the rocket to be manufactured through one single process, rather than requiring multiple pieces to be welded together. If this technology and the others being tested prove to be as effective as expected, the weight of rockets could be reduced by as much as 60 percent in the near future.
As for the light show itself, eastern seaboard viewers should be in for quite the treat. The barium and strontium used in this tracers are actually used in fireworks, so you can be pretty confident that you'll be in for a good show. NASA will be using four different payload mixtures, so there should be some variety too.
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