ATREX's glowing clouds  (Source:
U.S. citizens from Massachusetts to North Carolina said they could see the streaks early this morning

After many delays, NASA has finally sent five suborbital sounding rockets near the edge of space on a mission to study high-level jet stream winds.

The first launch attempt was March 15, but radio frequency interference on one of the five rockets put everything on hold. Since that night, weather conditions have prevented the five rockets from taking flight.

This morning, the five rockets were finally able to launch from their pads at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. They took flight just before 5 a.m., each launching 80 seconds after the previous.

The $4 million mission, called the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX), aims to study high-level jet stream winds by making artificial glowing clouds near the edge of space. These jet streams, which streak the sky at altitudes of 60 to 65 miles, are much higher than jet streams found in typical weather forecasts at about 6 miles above Earth, and NASA researchers hope to better understand them through this study.

Each rocket was able to do this by releasing a chemical called trimethyl aluminum (TMA), which is a nontoxic organometallic compound that is illuminated by the sun at high altitudes.

When traveling in the rockets, TMA, which is a liquid at room temperature, is kept under pressure. In the Earth's upper atmosphere, TMA that is released while evaporate while the rest freezes into solids. When TMA hit an altitude of 62 miles, friction, heating and increased evaporation along with a chemiluminous process and sunlight caused the particles to glow.

The end result was several white trails across the dark sky. U.S. citizens from Massachusetts to North Carolina said they could see the streaks early this morning.

"The launches and clouds were reported to be seen from as far south as Wilmington, N.C.; west to Charlestown, W. Va.; and north to Buffalo, N.Y.," said a NASA report.

NASA also used time-lapse photography, which was set up from North Carolina and New Jersey sites, to catch the drift of the cloud trails and determine the speed and direction of these winds at such altitudes. Researchers will also keep an eye on the rate of diffusion of the trails to see how fast the TMA will disappear.

Sources:, MSNBC

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