Psychedelic rainbow clouds are NASA's latest experiment

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Jun 19, 2017

NASA is about to send a kaleidoscope into the sky, so get out your lawn chairs, because the spectacle will be visible from as far as New York City.

The space agency will temporarily be turning Earth's ionosphere into a disco to observe something much more serious than the epic light show that everyone else will be livestreaming or—if you happen to live where you can actually see it above—Instagramming with #rainbow. Earth’s magnetic shield is broken. Sort of. Nearly a hundred tons of air escape from two holes in the bubble, or cusps, every day. We need this force field if we don’t want to end up like Mars. Unlike unfortunate Mars, our planet is protected from the solar winds and solar storms that almost obliterated the Martian atmosphere and stripped the surface down to a barren (at least so far as we know, for now) wasteland, billions of years ago.

NASA’s multicolor mission is meant to make the cusps visible in order to probe them as part of the international Grand Challenge initiative. Think of it as the dye that biologists use to amp the visibility of cells on microscope slides, except on an astronomical scale. Tracer vapors will be launched into Earth’s ionosphere and spew straight from the rocket body to target charged air particles interacting with solar wind. Expect to see a palette of green (barium), blue (cupric oxide) and red (strontium) space dyes that will likely mingle with each other into swirls of turquoise and magenta. We’re not going to be running out of air anytime soon, but scientists want to be positive that the quadrillions of tons left will not slowly seep out until life on Earth is doomed.

Barium and strontium vapors glowing in the night sky.

While this isn’t the first time NASA has splashed the skies with cosmic rainbows, it is the debut of a new method of releasing the vapors by firing aluminum soda-can-sized ampoules of them through the sides of the rocket. They will shoot 10 to 12 miles before the colors start streaming out. This is all happening after-hours because reacting to sunlight makes the clouds observable, with maximum visibility being just before sunrise or right after sunset.

"These launches have to occur just after sunset or right before sunrise. You need sunlight to hit the vapors and activate them as they're released," said Keith Koehler, spokesperson for the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, where the rocket will take off. "Auroras dance across the sky, and this is not that."

How these candy clouds that could have floated straight out of My Little Pony move through the ionosphere will give scientists the data they need to verify information about and update models of the very edge of our atmosphere. The colored vapors could also illuminate further understanding of aurorae, geomagnetic storms, and other phenomena that occur at ridiculously high altitudes—and why our planet’s magnetospheric fate was so drastically different from that of the Red Planet.

The rainbows will blast off between 9:06 and 9:21 EDT tonight, so keep refreshing the facility’s Facebook and Twitter for updates.

Livestream it here.

(via Business Insider)