Pictures From the Red Lithium Skypainting Rocket Launch

First Posted: Jan 30, 2013 01:06 PM EST

Yesterdays NASA experiment to release vaporized lithium in the sky went according to plan, with a small rocket launched from  the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Terrier-Improved Orion suborbital rocket took off at 5:50 p.m. EST and produced two lithium vapor trails during the flight, colored bright red by the evening sun in lower orbit. Reports from those viewing the launch or vapor trails came from as far away as the Outer Banks, N.C.; eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The goal was to test two different methods for creating the lithium vapor, to determine which configuration is best for delivering a visible marker to observe various phenomena in space.

NASA has two more missions with this purpose later this year, producing lithium trails to assist scientists in observing events in space. The first is scheduled for April in the central Pacific Ocean from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and the second will occur in June again at Wallops.

In the technology test launch, two canisters in the rocket's payload section contained solid metal lithium rods or chips embedded in a thermite cake. The thermite was ignited and produced heat to vaporize the lithium. The vapor was released in space to be detected and tracked optically.

The lithium combustion process posed no threat to the public during the release in space. When heated, the lithium rods change to lithium vapor and small amounts of lithium oxide. The thermite reaction produces iron and aluminium oxide.

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