Loops of wispy clouds rise like smoke rings against a background of stars—the products of a NASA rocket launch early Tuesday morning designed to study the upper-level jet stream. (See more cloud pictures.)
Starting just before 5 a.m. ET, the space agency launched five consecutive sounding rockets from its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as part of the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or ATREX. Once aloft, each suborbital rocket released a chemical tracer at altitudes between 50 and 90 miles (80 and 145 kilometers)—near the edge of space.
(Related: "Japan Earthquake Vibrations Nearly Reached Space.")
The chemical reacts with water and oxygen in the atmosphere to create milky white clouds, which could be seen easily by scientists and the public this morning in clear skies along the U.S. Northeast coast, according to NASA. Two of the rockets also carried instruments for measuring atmospheric temperature and pressure.
Pictures of the ATREX clouds will help scientists better understand the drivers of the high-level jet stream, ultrafast winds that blow 60 to 65 miles (96 to 105 kilometers) above Earth's surface.
This is the same region of Earth's upper atmosphere—the ionosphere—where strong electrical currents naturally flow, NASA says. Tracking how the jet stream moves can therefore give researchers insight into the roots of high-altitude electrical turbulence, which can disrupt satellites and radio communications.