By BROCK VERGAKIS, Associated Press
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Skywatchers along the East Coast may be able to see a NASA experiment that will launch a series of rockets to learn more about the little-understood jet stream winds that circle the Earth at the edge of space.
On a clear night between March 14 and April 4, NASA plans to launch five rockets in five minutes from its Wallops Island facility in coastal Virginia.
Each rocket will release a chemical leaving a long, milky-white cloud to track the winds that scientists will monitor from cameras on the coasts of North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey.
The clouds should be visible to the human eye for about 20 minutes from roughly Myrtle Beach, S.C. to southern New Hampshire, and as far west as Morgantown, W.Va.
"People will be able to see it. They can also photograph it pretty easily," said Miguel Larsen, a Clemson University professor who is the mission's principal investigator.
The possible viewing area covers major cities like Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, although it depends on ground lighting, cloud cover and the rockets' trajectories. Those in a smaller area from New York City to the Outer Banks in North Carolina might be able to see the rockets' glowing exhaust trails. NASA plans to post pictures and video taken by bystanders on its social media sites.
The small sounding rockets that usually carry a payload to space and them come back to Earth will crash into the Atlantic Ocean, where they will become artificial reefs. NASA said the experiment will cost about $4 million.
Each rocket will be fired different altitudes and distances, with the rocket going the longest distance crashing about halfway to Bermuda.
Firing multiple rockets allows scientists to track the high-speed winds over hundreds of miles.
The winds in the thermosphere about 65 miles above the surface can reach speeds up to 300 miles per hour. Larson said scientists aren't sure why there are such high winds at that altitude and the experiment will help address that question.
That altitude is also part of the ionosphere, where there are strong electrical currents from solar radiation. Data gathered from the experiment should allow scientists to better model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage satellites and affect radio communications. Scientists also hope the experiment will help explain how atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a day or two.
They aren't the same jet stream currents that circle closer to earth, affecting weather patterns and air travel.
NASA ATREX mission: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/missions/atrex.html
Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis
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