NASA mission to discover more about how energy is transported through magnet field lines has been delayed from Friday to Saturday evening.
The mission will see a Black Brant XII rocket take off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which the space agency said might provide “a brief light show” for people living in the eastern U.S. and Bermuda.
The rocket is not as big as the ones that are used to launch large satellites or astronauts into space. The four-stage vehicle is a type of sounding rocket, which are specifically designed to perform scientific experiments in sub-orbital flight.
On Thursday, NASA’s Wallops facility tweeted the launch had been rescheduled to “no earlier than Saturday, May 8, at 8:02 p.m. EDT.” It added that camera stations set up to view the rocket during the mission were looking for clear skies.
The mission is called KiNet-X. It is designed to study a problem that researchers have discovered with plasmas in space, which is how energy is transported through magnetic field lines.
An example can be seen in Earth’s colorful auroras, which are produced when charged particles from the Sun—also known as solar wind—interact with our planet’s magnetic field. These particles travel along lines in the magnetic field before interacting with the atmosphere near the poles, which is what produces the color.
“The electrons in Earth’s space environment and in the solar wind have relatively low energies,” said Peter Delamere, professor of space physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and principal investigator of the mission, in a statement. “Yet the aurora is generated by very high energy electrons. What is the energization mechanism?”
To investigate this, the KiNet-X experiment will launch to an altitude of more than 200 miles over the Atlantic Ocean, where it will release a cloud of barium vapor, which NASA stresses is not harmful to the environment or to public health.
This vapor will then ionize—become electrically charged—when it is exposed to sunlight and take on a violet color.
This ionized vapor will then become tied to the Earth’s magnetic field lines and stretch out, taking on the appearance of short trails rather than a cloud. Scientific instruments based on the ground and in an aircraft will observe the interactions and “allow us to quantify the flow of energy to the electrons,” Delamere said.
NASA said the vapor trails will be more difficult to see than in similar missions that have been conducted in the past because it will be dark.
A Black Brant IX rocket takes off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, May 16, 2017. Sounding rockets are designed to carry out scientific experiments. This image has been cropped.NASA WALLOPS