If you live on the eastern side of the United States, you may be able to watch a launch of a different type this week! NASA‘s kinetic-scale energy and momentum transport experiment, or KiNET-X for short, is hitching a ride aboard a Black Brant XII sounding rocket on Saturday, May 8th, at roughly 8:02 pm EST. Depending on the weather, the launch may be visible pretty far inland from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island in Virginia.

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What is KiNET-X?

The mission name, KiNET-X, is a play on the word “kinetics,” which is the study of motion. The objective of KiNET-X is to study how energy and momentum are affected by magnetic fields. KiNET-X seeks to figure out exactly what causes electrons that are moving at a relatively low energy along solar winds to become agitated. What force causes the high-energy excitation of these electrons that results in the beautiful aurora that we see? In other words: How do auroras actually function?!

Aside from learning about how our Earth operates, NASA’s KiNET-X mission will answer an important physics question that will help us understand the universe at large. The anticipated results will also help explain the interaction between Jupiter and its moon Io. Jupiter experiences its own auroral event thanks to volcanic eruptions on Io and KiNET-X should unlock the how behind this event. Peter Delamere is the KiNET-X principal investigator from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks; with KiNET-X, he hopes to better understand the relation between Io’s expulsions and Jupiter’s auroral event:

“We know the power generated by Io’s interaction, and we know the auroral power from the spot, but how are energy and momentum transported along the connecting magnetic field line?”
– Peter Delamere

What is NASA’s rocket carrying?

The single rocket will be launching with seven different payloads which will be deployed separately. There is a main instrument payload, which houses the diagnostic instrumentation and four smaller devices called “Bobs.” The “Bobs” are small instruments about the size of a two-liter bottle and they will take measurements of the atmosphere and environment. The remaining two payloads will disperse barium vapor, which is not harmful to the environment or human health.

The barium vapor will begin releasing approximately 9 to 10 minutes into the flight at an altitude between 217 and 249 miles. By this point, the rocket should be just north of Bermuda. As the vapor is vented, it will interact with Earth’s atmosphere and will ionize upon exposure to sunlight. For about 30 seconds, the barium vapor is anticipated to be a blend of green and violet colors before diffusing and dispersing. Due to the sun setting, this color shift may not be well visible to the naked eye, so do not get too upset if all you see is the rocket launching. In addition to the equipment on the “Bobs,” NASA will have special camera coverage aboard an observational aircraft and on the ground in Bermuda, too. Capturing the energization of the electrons is the big focus, not just putting on a pretty light show, after all.

How to watch

The visitor center at NASA Wallops Flight Facility will be closed for this launch. Cloud cover and your general weather may be the determining factor on whether you are able to watch in person or need to watch online. The launch is taking place off the coast of Virginia and the rocket’s path is southward toward Bermuda. Orient yourself to that direction when looking out at the skyline. The graphic below, provided by NASA, provides an estimate of when KiNET-X should be visible. If the weather looks to not be cooperating or if you live beyond the potential visibility zone, fear not! Wallops Flight Facility will be live-streaming their coverage of the mission on the Wallops IBM video site starting at 7:40 pm EDT.

In the event the mission launch needs to be scrubbed, there are multiple backup launches set through May 16. Keep an eye on the NASA Wallops Flight Facility page for updated information.

Map of the eastern United States of America with an overlay of when the KiNET-X mission launch may be visible. Image provided by NASA.

Map of the eastern United States of America with an overlay of when the KiNET-X mission launch may be visible. Image credit: NASA/Christian Billie


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