[UPDATE: Launched] NASA set to launch sounding rocket; those on the East Coast may see it

May 16th, 8:44 PM: The Black Brant XII sounding rocket carrying the KiNET-X mission launched from Wallops Island in Virginia, images below.

NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility is set to launch a sounding rocket on May 8th late in the evening that could be easily seen across the east side of the US if weather conditions allow.

A Black Brant XII sounding rocket is scheduled to launch from the Wallops on May 9th with the launch window opening at 8:03 PM EDT. The window lasts 40 minutes (8:43 PM EDT), and there are backup launch opportunities through May 16th. The payload will be the KiNETic-scale energy and momentum transport eXperiment, known as KiNET-X. The launch was delayed from May 7th as they wait for clear skies to observe the experiment.

This launch will be different from most, being that almost the entire eastern seaboard of the US may have an opportunity to see this launch. The payload will release barium vapors, which are not harmful to the environment or the public, between 9 minutes 30 seconds to 10 minutes into the flight.

The Mission

The purpose of this mission and experiment is to help answer this question:

“How are energy and momentum transported between different regions of space that are magnetically connected?”

That may seem like a very technical question, but it is rather simple. Think about Auroras. They are created when solar winds impact the Earth’s magnetic sphere. They can produce a fascinating display of light and colors. However, solar winds are relatively low energy compared to the amount of energy the electrons in our atmosphere are displaying. There is a conversion happening there, but what is the mechanism? That is what KiNET-X is trying to answer.

The KiNET-X experiment consists of 7 individual payloads that all work together. The aforementioned barium vapor is stored in 2 large payload containers to provide different views as to how the barium vapor disturbs the magnetic field. Four of the smaller payloads, nicknamed Bobs, take measurements on the local space environment that the vapor clouds get released into. Then there is the main diagnostic instrumentation that will record the magnetic field disturbances that occur when the vapors are released.

The Launch

A NASA Black Brant XII Launching Image Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility

The Black Brant XII is a 4-stage, solid fuel, sounding rocket designed to take payloads on high altitude flights. Standing just shy of 50 feet (15m) tall and the first stage motor producing ~116k pounds of thrust, the payload capability ranges from 250 pounds to 870 miles (1400 km) and up to 1000 pounds to 310 miles (500km) in altitude.

The barium vapor will be released between 217 to 249 miles (349-400 km) in altitude and 540 to 560 miles (869-901 km) downrange over the Atlantic Ocean. The clouds have an immediate green and violet color after venting. The clouds will ionize shortly after and will appear more violet in color.

KiNET-X Launch Visibility Map Image Credit: NASA/Christian Billie

Once the vapors ionize they will then become entrapped within the magnetic field of the earth. This will give the vapors the appearance of thin trails rather than clouds. The clouds will be more visible than these thin trails, but will still be hard to discern overall since violet is harder to see in the dark.

You can watch the launch live here.

Launch Images

Both of these Twitter threads host an abundance of images from those that saw the launch from up and down the east coast.

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