NASA Wallops Flight Facility

Norway’s residents are used to spectacular light displays. They’re privileged to regularly see the Aurora Borealis, meteor showers, and other types of sky shows. However, they were surprised when the skies began to show blue, purple, and yellow lights that hovered with an eerie glow. Looking almost like an ocean jellyfish, or an alien, speculation grew to a frenzy. Was it an otherworldly invasion? A magnetically-driven light show? No one was quite sure of what to think.

NASA Rocket Test Created Spectacular Light Show

As it turned out, the cause was much more connected to Earth than an alien invasion. It was NASA, launching the first of eight new rocket system tests that they’ll use to investigate the flow of winds in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The testing, formally known as the Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment (AZURE), was launched from the Andoya Space Center in Norway. Scientists are using the tests to understand how the Earth’s magnetic field interacts with particles from space that make their way to our atmosphere. This interaction may be similar to the collisions between the magnetic field and particles from the Sun which create the Aurora Borealis. It should help them understand what happens when the Aurora Borealis takes place.

Chemical Compounds Highlight Magnetic Interactions

How did the testing work? The rockets expelled chemical compounds to analyze the interaction of particles and the magnetic field between earth and space. The chemicals were released at heights between 71 and 155 miles above Earth. They were not hazardous in any way to the region’s population.  As part of its public service information campaign, NASA’s website explained the chemicals in detail. The gas tracers, which iodized upon exposure to sunlight, were composed of trimethyl aluminum and a mixture of barium/strontium. Similar to fireworks, they created colorful displays that NASA scientists were able to monitor and collect data from.

About Earth’s Atmosphere

Scientists are using this test and others to explore regions beyond Earth. With this research, their knowledge of Earth’s atmosphere is evolving. It is generally understood that Earth’s atmosphere consists of about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and a small percentage of other gasses. It blocks some of the most dangerous rays of the sun and traps heat to the extent that Earth maintains comfortable and habitable temperature.

Scientists also know that Earth’s atmosphere is about 300 miles thick with much of its content resting 10 or 20 miles of the surface. With height, the air gradually thins. At a couple of hundred miles above Earth, the air is extremely thin and winds can be as high as a few hundred miles per hour. Earth’s atmosphere is divided into five general sections, the troposphere is closest to Earth, is four to 12 miles thick, and contains half of the content of the atmosphere. The exosphere is the outermost layer and is the point at which Earth’s atmosphere transitions into outer space.

Other Tests Of Earth’s Atmosphere

NASA maintains a strong focus on understanding the atmosphere and how it affects our planet. They’ve dedicated an entire organizational focus area to researching what makes up the atmosphere. Teams in this focus area study the processes that affect clouds, aerosols, and trace gasses like ozone that impact air quality, weather, and the planet.

AZURE is only one of many tests that NASA is conducting to better understand Earth’s atmosphere. The agency’s Earth Observing System is a group of satellites that are specifically deployed to monitor the planet’s clouds, oceans, vegetation, ice, and atmosphere. Another program, called Discover AQ, is dedicated to monitoring pollution and air quality. A third program, an atmospheric tomography mission known as ATom, collected samples throughout the world, reporting its results in 2018.