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Air & Space

NASA finally launches suborbital research rockets from Virginia

  • 633764main_ATREX Launch-1.jpg

    March 27, 2012: A sounding rocket launches as part of the ATREX mission from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. (NASA)

  • atrex-rockets-flight-profile.jpg

    This map of the United States' mid-Atlantic region shows the flight profile of NASA's five ATREX rockets, as well as the projected area where they may be visible after launch on March 14, 2012. The rockets' chemical tracers, meanwhile, should be visible from South Carolina through much of New England. (NASA/Wallops)

  • nasa-atrex-mission-rockets.jpg

    NASA's ATREX mission will launch five rockets within five minutes to help scientists study the high-altitude jet stream located 60 to 65 miles above the surface of the Earth. The rockets being used for the mission are two Terrier-Improved Orions (left), one Terrier-Oriole (center) and two Terrier-Improved Malemutes (right). (NASA/Wallops)

NASA finally launched five research rockets from a facility in Virginia early Tuesday after the mission suffered a number of setbacks.

The suborbital sounding rockets began blasting off from NASA's Wallops Island, Va., space center at 4:58am local time, the agency announced via Twitter.

Earlier attempts to launch the rockets were plagued by poor weather, leading NASA to repeatedly delay the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment (ATREX).

Clear skies at Wallops Island and viewing sites in New Jersey and North Carolina were necessary for the launch to go ahead.


LATE SHOW: The ATREX experiment to study high altitude weather suffered weeks of delays before the final launch:

March 15, 2012: Radio glitch leads to delay

March 21, 2012: Bad weather causes delay

March 22, 2012: Cloudy skies lead to delay

NASA_Wallops tweeted after the final blast off, "Awesome morning of launches. Congrats to the #ATREX team for a very successful mission."

The rockets were destined for the jet stream that lies 65 miles (104 kilometers) above the Earth and packs wind speeds well over 300mph (480kph).

After blasting off in near-synchronization, the rockets released a chemical into that atmospheric highway, leaving milky, white cloud trails that allowed people to "see" those winds from hundreds of miles (kilometers) away.

Not long after the launch, photographs of the trails were posted on social networking sites.

NASA had said the clouds could be visible for up to 20 minutes from South Carolina to New Hampshire and Vermont.

The high-altitude jet stream is different from -- and not as well understood as -- the lower-altitude one often featured in weather forecasts.

The rockets contain tools to measure the pressure and temperature in the atmosphere at the peak of the jet stream's high-speed winds, while helping scientists learn about how these winds affect satellite and radio communications, NASA said.

The rockets were designed to splash down and sink to the bottom of the ocean at the end of the mission to begin new lives as small artificial reefs.