Sounding Off in the Ionosphere
Last night, NASA launched a pair of rockets from the Marshall Islands to paint the upper atmosphere red and white. It was part of a project called EVEX designed to observe special “neutral winds” in the ionosphere.
The ionosphere extends into what we call “outer space”, and is part of Earth’s electromagnetic shield protecting us from solar sterilization. When low-energy sunlight reacts with the upper atmosphere, we see a phenomenon called “airglow” (which you’ll probably recognize from photos like this). When high-energy particles from the solar wind strike the polar upper atmosphere, we get auroras (click here to learn more about those).
Of course, that means that disturbances way up there can block important signals like GPS transmissions, which makes generals and smartphone users rather angry. So to study how odd ionosphere winds can cause glitches, NASA launched two rockets a few minutes apart, each arriving simultaneously at different ionosphere altitudes. They released harmless chemicals that react with the thin air to make brilliant clouds that can be tracked from the ground.
It also kind of looks like a space ghost-baby is about to be made.