Black Brant XII Spooks North East With Strange Lights from Artificial Cloud

September 21, 2009

On September 19 2009, NASA launched a Black Brant XII from its Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility.

Black Brant XII suborbital sounding rocket.

NASA reported that the light came from an artificial noctilucent cloud formed by the exhaust particles of the rocket's fourth stage about 173 miles high.

The Blast caused numerous citizens to file reports on the "strange lights in the sky" with the media and government from Virginia up to Boston.

The Charged Aerosol Release Experiment (CARE) was conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense Space Test Program using a NASA four-stage Black Brant XII suborbital sounding rocket. Using ground based instruments and the STP/NRL STPSat-1 spacecraft, scientists are studying an artificial noctilucent cloud formed by the exhaust particles of the rocket's fourth stage at about 173 miles altitude.

Ground based cameras and radars were based at various observation stations along the Atlantic coast and in Bermuda. Because of the optical observations, the launch required clear skies not only at Wallops but also at the multiple observation stations.

The Spatial Heterodyne IMager for MEsospheric Radicals instrument on the STPSat-1 spacecraft will track the CARE dust cloud for days or even months. The SHIMMER instrument has previously viewed natural noctilucent clouds for the past two years. The CARE will be the first space viewing of an artificial noctilucent cloud.

Data collected during the experiment will provide insight into the formation, evolution, and properties of noctilucent clouds, which are typically observed naturally at high latitudes. In addition to the understanding of noctilucent clouds, scientists will use the experiment to validate and develop simulation models that predict the distribution of dust particles from rocket motors in the upper atmosphere.

Polar Mesospheric Clouds (also known as noctilucent clouds) are transient, upper atmospheric phenomena observed usually in the summer months at high latitudes (greater than 50 degrees) of both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. They are bright and cloudlike in appearance while in deep twilight. They are illuminated by sunlight when the lower layers of the atmosphere are in the darkness of the Earth's shadow.

Natural noctilucent clouds, also known as polar mesospheric clouds, are found in the upper atmosphere as spectacular displays that are most easily seen just after sunset. The clouds are the highest clouds in Earth's atmosphere, located in the mesosphere around 50 miles altitude.

They are normally too faint to be seen with the naked eye and are visible only when illuminated by sunlight from below the horizon while the Earth's surface is in darkness.

A team from government agencies and universities, led by the Naval Research Laboratory, is conducting the experiment. In addition to the Naval Research Laboratory, participants include the DoD STP, NASA, University of Michigan, Air Force Research Laboratory, Clemson University, Stanford University, University of Colorado, Penn State University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Haystack Observatory.

The Black Brant XII is a four-stage, solid propellant sounding rocket consisting of a Talos 1st stage, Taurus 2nd stage, Black Brant 3rd stage, and Nihka 4th stage. This vehicle is capable of lifting anywhere from 1000 lbs to a 500 km altitude to 250 lbs to approximately 1400 km. Normally, the Black Brant XII is flown in northern latitudes in the winter months where magnetic anomalies such as the Aurora Borealis are visible.

The Black Brant XII was recently used successfully in a mission launched from Poker Flat Research Range in cooperation with Dr. Marc Lessard from the University of New Hampshire.

The Sounding Rockets Program Office (SRPO), located NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, provides suborbital launch vehicles, payload development, and field operations support to NASA and other government agencies. SRPO works closely with the Sounding Rocket User Community to provide launch opportunities facilitating a broad spectrum of science applications.

In support of science, SRPO conducts approximately 20 flights annually from launch sites around the world. Operations are conducted from fixed launch sites such as Wallops Test Range (Virginia), Poker Flat Research Range (Alaska), and White Sands Missile Range (New Mexico) as well as sites such as Andoya Rocket Range (Norway) and Esrange (Sweden).

Launch operations are also conducted from mobile sites set up by the Wallops Test Range. Mobile "campaigns" have been conducted from Australia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Kwajalein Atoll. The mobile capability offered by the Wallops Test Range allows scientists to conduct their science "where it occurs".

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