NASA’s Independence Day Fireworks from Wallops Investigates Earth’s Global Daytime Dynamo Current

July 4 Morning Fireworks from NASA!
A NASA Black Brant V Sounding Rocket launches in support of the Daytime Dynamo Mission on July 4, 2013 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: NASA/J. Eggers[/caption]

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – Today, July 4, NASA celebrated America’s Independence Day with a spectacular fireworks display of a dynamic duo of sounding rockets – blasting off barely 15 seconds apart this morning from the agencies NASA Wallops Island facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia on a science experiment to study the ionosphere.

The goal of the two rocket salvo was an in depth investigation of the electrical currents in Earth’s ionosphere – called the Daytime Dynamo.

The Dynamo electrical current sweeps through the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles that extends from about 30 to 600 miles above Earth.

Disruptions in the ionosphere can scramble radio wave signals for critical communications and navigations transmissions that can impact our every day lives.

The launches suffered multiple delays over the past 2 weeks due to weather, winds, errant boats and unacceptable science conditions in the upper atmosphere.

A Black Brant V launches first in support of Daytime Dynamo. Terroer improved Orion (at right) followed 15 seconds later from NASA Wallops on July 4, 2013. Credit: NASA/P. Black

At last, the Fourth of July was the irresistible charm.

The liftoff times were 10:31:25 a.m. for the Black Brant V and 10:31:40 a.m. (EDT) for the Terrier-Improved Orion.

The experiment involved launching two suborbital rockets and also dispatching a NASA King Air airplane to collect a stream of airborne science measurements.

Daytime Dynamo is a joint project between NASA and the Japanese Space Agency, or Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said Robert Pfaff to Universe Today in an exclusive interview inside Mission Control at Wallops. Pfaff is the principle investigator for the Dynamo sounding rocket at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“The dynamo changes during the day and varies with the season,” Pfaff told me.

But they only have one chance to launch. So the science team has to pick the best time to meet the science objectives.

“We would launch every month if we could and had the funding, in order to even more fully characterize the Dynamo.”

Two rocket salvo comprising a Black Brant V (left) and a Terrier-Improved Orion (right) sit ready to launch as part of the Daytime Dynamo mission in this panoramic view from NASA Wallops Flight Facility at Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Credit: Ken Kremer/

The 35 foot tall single-stage Black Brant V launched first. It carried a 600 pound payload to collect the baseline data to characterize the neutral and charged ionospheric particles as it blasted skyward.

The 33 foot tall two-stage Terrier-Improved Orion took off just 15 seconds later in the wake of the exhaust of the Black Brant V.

Exhaust trails from Black Brant V and a Terrier-Improved Orion launched in support of Daytime Dynamo mission on July 4, 2013. Credit: NASA/P. Black

The Terrier-Improved Orion successfully deployed a lengthy trail of lithium gas from a pressurized canister that created a chemical tracer to track how the upper atmospheric winds vary with altitude. These winds are believed to be the drivers of the dynamo currents.

Both rockets fly for about five minutes to an altitude of some 100 miles up in the ionosphere. They both splashed down in the ocean after about 15 minutes.

NASA’s King Air aircraft was essential to the mission. I toured the airplane on the Wallops runway for an up-close look inside. It is outfitted with a bank of precisely aimed analytical instruments peering through the aircraft windows to capture the critical science data – see my photos herein.

“The King Air launches about an hour before the scheduled liftoff time,” Pfaff told me.

“It uses special cameras and filters to collect visible and infrared spectroscopic data from the lithium tracer to characterize the daytime dynamo.”

The science instruments are newly developed technology to make the daytime measurements of the lithium tracer and were jointly created by NASA, JAXA and scientists at Clemson University.

“Everything worked as planned,” Pfaff announced from Wallops Mission Control soon after the magnificent Fourth of July fireworks show this morning.

Ken Kremer

Black Brant V (left) and Terrier-Improved Orion (right) rockets sit on launch pads as part of the Daytime Dynamo mission in this up close view from NASA Wallops Flight Facility at Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Inside cabin view of NASA King Air aircraft outfitted with science instrument mounts to support a bank of cameras to capture visible and infrared spectroscopic measurements in support of Daytime Dynamic launches on July 4, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Robert Pfaff (right), Science Principle Investigator and Ken Kremer of Universe Today (left) discuss NASA’s Daytime Dynamo mission inside NASA Wallop’s Mission Control. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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