ROANOKE, Va. – Many Floridians, even hundreds of miles from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, were treated to quite the sight Thursday morning after the Atlas V launch. My uncle, who lives about 250 miles away from the launch site, sent me what he saw (pictured above) after pulling into work.
The picture is out of this world...literally.
Why are there trails?
When any kind of aircraft is placed so high in the atmosphere, they're reaching a very cold part of the sky. That very hot exhaust being thrust into very cold air makes a trail, similar to what you see come out the exhaust of a car on cold, winter mornings.
Why does it take on such an odd shape?
Rocket launches will also produce large concentrations of smoke. Wind patterns high up in the sky will then allow that smoky trail to fan out.
Why is it so bright and colorful?
This rocket launch happened close to sunrise. If you think of the atmosphere like a cake you have multiple layers. The troposphere (where we are), the stratosphere, the mesosphere and the thermosphere make up Earth's atmosphere.
Once the rocket reaches the mesosphere (30-50 miles above us), the trails start to interact with the sunlight that is still below the horizon (from our vantage point). It's this interaction that causes the light to split and cause a few different colors.
Can we ever see something like this?
Whenever there are launches going on at Wallops Island, be sure to keep an eye out. You might just get treated to something like this too!