Rockets' Red Glare! NASA Marks Fourth of July with Double Launch

NASA Fourth of July Launch: Liftoff
A NASA Black Brant V sounding rocket launches from the agency's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., at 10:31:25 a.m. ET on July 4, 2013. The rocket was the first of two to launch in support of the Daytime Dynamo experiment. The Terrier-Improved Orion (foreground) was launched 15 seconds later. (Image credit: NASA/Patrick Black)

NASA launched two small rockets from Virgina's Eastern Shore today in an early Fourth of July fireworks display aimed to probe the electrical eddies of the Earth's upper atmosphere.

The two small rockets blasted off within 15 seconds of each other from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. The mission: to probe the global electrical current in the winds of Earth's ionosphere with instruments mounted to a Black Brant V booster and a Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket.

Contrails line the sky over Wallops Island, Va., on July 4, 2013 after two sounding rockets launched 15 seconds apart as part of the Daytime Dynamo experiment. A NASA Black Brant V was launched at 10:31:25 a.m. and was followed 15 seconds later by a Terrier-Improved Orion. (Image credit: NASA/Patrick Black)

"We have liftoff of the Black Brant V & Terrier-Improved Orion, for an Independence Day fireworks show," NASA Wallops officials wrote in a Twitter post marking launch success.

The Black Brant V rocket launched at 10:31:25 a.m. EDT (1431:25 GMT), with the Terrior-Improved Orion rocket following at 10:31:40 a.m. EDT (1431:40 GMT).

NASA's Fourth of July rocket launches were part of the Daytime Dynamo mission, a joint project with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to study how electrical currents move in Earth's ionosphere between 30 and 600 miles (48 and 965 kilometers) above the surface. People on Earth rely on this current in the ionosphere, called the dynamo, every day.

Radio signals are bounced off the ionosphere during broadcasts and satellite communication and navigation signals must travel through the ionosphere in order to reach the Earth. Then the ionosphere is disturbed, these signals can be distorted, NASA officials said.

One of two small sounding rockets launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on July 4, 2013, just in time for the Fourth of July holiday, as part of the Daytime Dynamo mission to probe Earth's ionosphere. Here, a Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket zooms from its Wallops Island, Va., launch pad. (Image credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility)

The larger Black Brant V rocket carried instruments to measure the neutral and charged particles in Earth's ionosphere, while the smaller Terrier-Improved Orion released a lithium gas compound designed to allow scientists on the ground track the electrical current wind patterns. The two rockets were expected to reach an altitude of about 100 miles (160 kilometers), but not fly high and fast enough to orbit the Earth.

The rocket launch came after days of delays due to unfavorable weather at the Wallops launch range. Cloudy weather and high winds prevented several launch attempts, which began June 24. It was only by coincidence that the rocket launch coincided with the annual U.S. Independence Day holiday.

"Happy Fourth of July everyone," a launch controller told the mission team shortly after liftoff. "We beat everyone by putting some rockets into the air."

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Tariq Malik Editor-in-chief

Tariq is the editor-in-chief of Live Science's sister site He joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, focusing on human spaceflight, exploration and space science. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times, covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University.