NASA successfully launched a test rocket on late Tuesday evening that illuminated the night sky on the East Coast of the United States. The purpose of the test was to gather significant scientific data to be used for future projects. Liftoff of the Terrior Improved Orion suborbital rocket occured at 5:50pm EST at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility on Virginia's Atlantic coast.
Observers saw two red colored trails of vaporized lithium in the sky, reports of sighting the trails came in from as far away as the Outer Banks, N.C., the eastern part of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In a statement prior to the launch Tuesday, "This launch is a technology test flight for two upcoming missions. We will be testing two different methods for creating the lithium vapor to determine which configuration is best for observing various science phenomena in space," said Libby West, mission project manager with the NASA Sounding Rocket Program.
"In the technology test launch, two canisters in the rocket's payload section contained solid metal lithium rods or chips embedded in a thermite cake. The thermite was ignited and produced heat to vaporize the lithium. The vapor was released in space to be detected and tracked optically," NASA explains about the process. Once the lithium vapor was heated, the lithium rods became lithium vapor and lithium oxide. The combustion process, produced iron and aluminum oxide posed no threat to the public.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, NASA would conduct experiments from the Wallops facility when most people were asleep during the predawn hours. The chemicals used during those times created colors of red, green and purple and took people by surprise if a launch occurred during evening hours. It's reported that in March of 1967, numerous people on the East Coast contacted police stations and newspapers in a panic over the strange sightings.
Later this year, two more missions will launch using these same lithium trails for scientific observation. The next launch is in April in the central Pacific Ocean from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The second mission is in June, once more at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.