NTB: Why is it so important to learn about this?
Vieira: They want to know what causes those winds. There are no models that show that those winds should be at those velocities at those altitudes, so they’re trying to understand a little bit more so that they can create a better model, which would also affect weather.
NTB: From a technology perspective, how does it work? How will you get what you need for data?
Vieira: We launched, as you mentioned, five rockets, and two of those rockets were mother/daughter payloads. All five of the rockets had trimethyl aluminum (TMA), which is a chemical that once introduced to air, ignites; it’s a spontaneous ignition. The TMA was ejected out of the payloads, and brought into the atmosphere, and the winds would then carry that iridescent cloud that was formed. They had 3 different camera sites — one of them in New Jersey, one here at Wallops, and one in North Carolina. With those three locations, they were able to observe the TMA clouds and watch how the winds pushed it away. What they were actually doing was coloring the winds, so they could see what the winds were actually doing. The daughter portion of the two mother/daughters had some instruments, so they were measuring pressures, and densities, and temperatures.
NTB: What kinds of tools measured and analyzed the wind? You mentioned the mother portion.
Vieira: They had some cold cathodes that they were actually using for measuring all of the data at those altitudes.
NTB: Can you take us through the five rockets and their functions?
Vieira: All five rockets were two-stage vehicles. We had one Terrier Oriole, two Terrier Malamutes, and two Terrier Orions. All of the rocket motors, with the exception of Oriole, are DoD rocket motors that have expired in their time with the military. It gives us a cheap method to get into space with those rocket motors from DoD. The Oriole motor is a commercially bought rocket motor. The highest rocket went to an altitude of 403 kilometers.
NTB: How do the rockets needed for ATREX compare with other rockets? How are these built differently? What are the different functions?
Vieira: These rockets were specifically built for the chemical releases. We’ve launched rockets with TMA in the past at different locations from here at Wallops to Poker Flat, Alaska, where we do a lot of our rocket launches, and also the White Sands Missile Range down in New Mexico. They’re not really that different than the other rockets. We launched mother/daughter scenarios in the past, but they’re not as typical as your single-payload types. They’re basic for us.
NTB: On the day of the launch you could actually see the clouds created by TMA, right?
Vieira: Absolutely. Within a
250-mile radius of Wallops, you could see those clouds. We were
getting beautiful pictures from New Jersey. When we actually
launched, a host of aircraft airliners reported in, saying how
beautiful the skies were looking.
NTB: So the defining characteristic of trimethyl aluminum is that it’s able to color the wind?
Vieira: Correct. It instantaneously combusts with the introduction of oxygen, so it burns and the residue from that burn is an iridescent cloud.
NTB: What is the timeline for this project? How long will this take? When do we get the data?
Vieira: We launched it on the 27th, and I was talking with the PI yesterday, and the data has already been collected. They’re doing the analysis now, so I would say within a couple of months they would have their findings. I was given this project about seven months ago, and we were doing all the payload buildup, the testing, and getting the range in a state of readiness for this mission. It was a fairly quick mission, which is the kind I like the most.