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Eerie snapshots from a quintuple space shot


Snaky clouds of tracer chemicals hang in the sky over Virginia after today's five-rocket ATREX launch. The rockets released a stream of trimethyl aluminum, which is considered nontoxic but hazardous because it can ignite in the atmosphere. At high altitudes, the chemical trails took on a luminous glow that allowed scientists to track anomalous wind patterns in the jet stream.

A combination fireworks show and UFO invasion played out in the skies over the U.S. East Coast this morning, thanks to the five-rocket fusillade launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket blasts were part of a $4 million mission called the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or ATREX.

The five suborbital sounding rockets were fired off over the course of five minutes, starting just before 5 a.m. ET, to track what's happening in the upper atmosphere. ATREX was designed to help scientists get a snapshot of strange ultra-fast wind patterns in the jet stream by releasing chemical tracers at different times on the edge of outer space, more than 60 miles high. Those tracers created milky white clouds that could be seen from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Here are just a few of the spooky snapshots. For more about the mission, check out the full story.

NASA Wallops

A time-lapse picture taken from near the launch site at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia shows the blazing ascent of the five suborbital rockets, plus the release of the chemical tracers at high altitude.

NASA Wallops

A wide-angle view shows ghostly clouds hanging over Virginia early this morning after the launch of five suborbital rockets for NASA's ATREX mission. The rockets released clouds of chemicals that were used to monitor wind patterns at high altitudes.

Jack Fusco via Space.com

Skywatcher and photographer Jack Fusco snapped this photo of the glowing clouds created by NASA's five-rocket ATREX launch from Seaside Park, N.J., north of the rockets' Virginia launch site.

Jeff Berkes Photography

Astrophotographer Jeff Berkes captured this view of the glowing cloud from West Chester, Pa. Berkes says he's driven hundreds of miles over the past week hoping to get pictures of the launch, which was delayed repeatedly. This time he had to stay at home, but he got an "amazing" view nevertheless. "Watching the rockets scream through the night sky was amazing," he said in an email. "It was even better to watch the tracers spread out from the rockets into the atmosphere. The colors were very intense for a short period and lasted about 30 minutes." For more of Berkes' work, check out his website.

NASA launched five rockets in Virginia on Tuesday. The rockets are part of a mission to better understand jet stream winds. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

More about the mission:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.