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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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".