One day after a Chinese rocket disintegrated brightly over the western USA, another set of strange lights appeared over the same region. This time it was NASA’s doing. Before sunrise on Feb. 25th, a Terrier-Black Brant research rocket lifted off from White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, carrying an experiment to Earth’s ionosphere. Vapors released by the rocket created a luminous red blob in the dawn sky, shown here over Mesa, Arizona:
“I got up to put the garbage outside just before sunrise and swore I saw something glowing in the sky,” reports photographer Jasper Nance. “I thought I was crazy so I ran inside to grab my camera. Once my eyes were dark adjusted there was no missing the huge red splotch just above where the sun might rise. I watched it for about half an hour until the sunrise was too bright to see it any longer”
Early-rising sky watchers as far away as Utah saw the cloud. Some likened it to the aurora borealis. Most were surprised by the apparition. Nance, however, correctly guessed that it came from White Sands.
The ionosphere is a layer of Earth’s upper atmosphere where solar UV radiation knocks electrons off atoms and molecules. Plasma in the ionosphere is crucial to over-the-horizon radio communications, and also affects the quality of GPS navigation and other modern technologies. According to a White Sands press release , ground stations monitored the cloud to gather data on “natural wave-like structures referred to as traveling ionospheric disturbances.”