Aerial Light Show With 5 Rockets in 5 Minutes

NASA's rocket launches are expected to leave contrails like this, useful for study of the upper atmosphere. NASA image.

East coasters between South Carolina and New England have a unique skywatching opportunity Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, as NASA launches five rockets in just over five minutes.

Even if you're not in the viewing area, you can still watch the launch webcast by clicking here Tuesday night.

As they blast skyward from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's eastern shore, the rockets will release chemicals to create glowing tracer clouds designed to be seen from the ground. The clouds will be visible for about 20 minutes.

The launch window is between 11 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. Eastern Time, so you'll have to stay up late or get up really early to see it. This map shows the expected viewing area and the clouds will look something like this. Special cameras in New Jersey and North Carolina will watch the clouds to gauge wind direction and speed.

It's all part of NASA's $4 million ATREX mission, short for Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment. They've got a handy video explainer here.

The point of ATREX is to study ultra high-altitude jet stream winds found roughly 60 to 65 miles above the surface of the Earth, at the edge of space. (These are not the same jet stream winds that get all the attention in weather forecasts, NASA says.)

Researchers hope to learn more about how these winds might affect future high-altitude or low-orbit missions, especially since they can travel at speeds around 200 to 300 miles per hour.

And mariners, beware. If you're planning a late-night cruise off the eastern seaboard, check this map to see where the rockets are coming down, or keep one eye on the sky.

The mission requires clear skies to launch, and NASA says it will decide Monday night if it looks like the mission is a "go."

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