(NASA Wallops)

Early Thursday morning, the Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket launched from Wallops Island, Va., with a payload of colorful chemicals. Scientists wanted to study the movement and reaction of the upper atmosphere by filming man-made, glowing clouds.

In principle, it was a simple experiment (if we consider launching a state of the art rocket “simple”). But at every turn, this mission was thwarted by weather and humans. It was delayed 10 times over the past few weeks due to strong upper-level winds, cloudy skies and boaters just off the coast in the “no-boating” zone.

Alas, the 11th time is apparently the charm. At 4:25 a.m. Thursday the rocket launched, and four minutes later the canisters of color exploded in the sky. The chemicals mixed with the atmosphere to create artificially colored clouds. Cameras were set up at Wallops and in Duck, N.C., to track the color tracers through the air.

It wasn’t really visible from the D.C. area because of cloudy skies, but it was clear along the coast of Virginia, and if you looked closely, you might have seen some glowing spots in the clouds around D.C. and Baltimore, and even into Pennsylvania.

Three chemicals interacted to form the color tracers — barium, strontium and cupric-oxide. None of these chemicals posed a hazard.

This animation from Christopher Becke, a high school physics teacher in Williamsburg, Va., took long exposure photos and strung them together to break the experiment down into phases.

NASA Wallops shared some photos of the launch and the clouds on its Twitter feed, and reader/photographer Harrison Jones shared his view from Pennsylvania.


(NASA Wallops)

(NASA Wallops)

(NASA Wallops)

The view from Ocean City, N.J. (Steve Maciejewski)

Seen from Pennsylvania.
(Harrison Jones/Flickr)

Seen from Pennsylvania.
(Harrison Jones/Flickr)