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Why NASA will fire five rockets in five minutes

NASA is probing the jet stream with a rocket show that could be visible on the East Coast Wednesday night.

By Mike WallSpace.com / March 14, 2012

This NASA diagram shows the flight paths - and areas in the US where the chemical tracers might be visible - of the five Atrex rockets scheduled to be launched March 14.

NASA/Wallups

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NASA will launch five rockets in five minutes Wednesday (March 14) to study fast-moving winds at the edge of space, and many skywatchers along the United States' mid-Atlantic coast will be able to watch the show.

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The unmanned rocket barrage, which is slated to blast off late Wednesday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, forms the core of the agency's Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or ATREX. The five suborbital rockets will release chemical tracers between 50 to 90 miles (80 to 145 kilometers) up to track high-altitude winds, which can zip around the planet at more than 300 mph (483 kph).

These tracers will create milky-white clouds that should be visible to folks on the ground from parts of South Carolina up through New Jersey, researchers said.

"They occur in the middle of the night, and they glow," ATREX principal investigator Miguel Larsen, of Clemson University, told reporters March 7. "It's not extremely bright, but it's definitely visible."

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Mysterious winds at the edge of space

ATREX aims to probe the high-altitude jet stream, which whistles along 60 to 65 miles (97 to 105 km) above Earth's surface.

This river of air blows much higher up than the jet stream commonly referred to in weather forecasts, which is found at an altitude of just 6 miles (10 km) or so. And it's much stronger, too, with winds routinely exceeding 200 mph and occasionally topping 300 mph. [Infographic: Earth's Atmosphere – Top to Bottom]

Theory suggests that the high-altitude jet stream should travel at just 50 mph (80 kph), Larsen said. ATREX aims to help scientists understand why their predictions are so far removed from reality.

"The reason for doing this mission is that we really don't understand why there are such large winds at those heights," Larsen said.

A five-rocket fusillade

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