You're familiar with the weather patterns in the skies above your head. The movement, size and color of clouds offer a sense of what's going on outside before you even step out the door. Clouds are such useful weather indicators that NASA wants to make some colorful clouds way up in the ionosphere, all to understand what the weather is like up there.
And to do that, the agency painted the sky red ... and blue ... with some hints of green.
Using a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket, NASA launched 10 soda can-sized canisters into the ionosphere at 4:25 a.m. June 29 (EST), around 118 miles above the surface at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Once released, the canisters let loose with barium, strontium and cupric-oxide, and these harmless metals formed red and blue-green clouds, or vapor tracers, in the ionosphere. Previous attempts to launch this experiment were aborted over the course of June due to poor weather conditions and boats in the path of the rocket's descent.
You can see a quick glimpse of the vapor tracers in the video below.
According to the launch statement, NASA received almost 2,000 reports and photos of the vapor tracers visible in the sky. The sightings stretched as far north as New York, as far south as South Carolina, and as far inland as Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
What's the big deal about the ionosphere?
You're probably wondering why NASA cares about the weather in the ionosphere, or even why these artificial clouds are a good way to figure out what's going on up there.
The ionosphere extends from about 37 miles above the surface to 620 miles. Particles in this part of the atmosphere absorb radiation from the sun and create ionized gases. Neutral gases are also circulating in the ionosphere. These gases move around in the ionosphere, influenced mostly by the Earth's own magnetic and electric fields and solar activity. Other factors play a part as well, including the altitude, local time, latitude and season of where the ionized gases are at any particular moment.
The goal of the experiment is to learn more about the gases in the ionosphere and the patterns they typically follow, just as with other weather patterns. Computer models, satellites and ground-based radars are all useful for following the movements of these gases, but the vapor tracers can give a very clear image of the gases' flows. NASA equates the tracers with "injecting a small, harmless dye into a river or stream, to study its currents, eddies and other motions."
The activity and behavior of the ionosphere are important for things like radio communication and GPS satellites, so it just makes sense to know more about this layer of Earth's atmosphere. And who knows? We might learn more than we set out to discover.
This story was originally published on June 12 and has been updated with new information.