If you happen to be outside last night over on the United States East Coast looking at the sky, you may have been surprised at what you saw. Last night, NASA launched a rocket that put on a brief but spectacular light show over the US East Coast that would have been visible to stargazers all along the Atlantic seaboard. The light show was caused by an experiment launched aboard a NASA sounding rocket.
Part of the mission had the rocket releasing a chemical tracer that would’ve created two bright red colored lithium vapor trails in the sky. NASA predicted that the rocket trial would have been visible to observers across the mid-Atlantic region and possibly even further away. The rocket launched from the NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility on the Virginia Atlantic Coast.
Liftoff was set for 5:30 PM EST and the rocket was suborbital not designed to be put into orbit. The purpose of the mission was to test technology for gathering scientific data during future missions. The red vapor released by the rocket was designed to be detected and tracked optically. The high-altitude lithium trails were illuminated by the sun, which was below the local horizon at ground level during the launch.
One of the vapor trails would’ve occurred at an altitude of roughly 72 miles above the surface of the planet and the second would have occurred about 78 miles above the planet. The vapor trails were created by heating lithium rods, changing them to lithium vapor and small amounts of lithium oxide. NASA noted that the lithium that produced the trails in the sky poses no threat to the public during the release.