Beyond the boundary of space, some 62 miles above the surface of the Earth, the wind is blowing like a hurricane. Too high for weather balloons and too low for satellites, we don't know much about this region, which is why NASA sent five sounding rockets up there in under five minutes this morning.
Every time the space shuttle launched, atmospheric scientists were paying close attention to its exhaust trail. Up between 62 and 68 miles up (space technically begins at 62), the exhaust was getting blown around by 200-300 mile per hour winds. Winds like this can help move atmospheric disturbances from one side of the Earth to another in just a day or two, and learning more about them will also help scientists model electromagnetic fields which can occasionally screw with communications systems.
Without any more shuttle launches to spy on, NASA has gotten a little bit more proactive about measuring those lower thermospheric winds by deciding to launch a suborbital sounding rocket all up in there. And if it was going to launch one, it might as well launch two. Or three. Or five. All at once. In the space of just about five minutes this morning (one every 80 seconds), NASA fired a quintet of sounding rockets from the Virginia coast out over the Atlantic, and as each one reached 50 miles of altitude, they began to release their payloads of trimethyaluminum, a chemical that glows when it reacts with oxygen. Cameras in North Carolina and New Jersey were watching for these milky white chemical trails, and they were able to track them, measuring the speed and direction of the winds at those altitudes.
The video of the launches is kinda cool (you can check it out below), but the pictures of the trails in the atmosphere are mesmerizing, and you can see all of NASA's pics in our gallery right here.
All images in the gallery below courtesy NASA.