NASA rockets search for hurricane-like swirls in upper atmosphere

Called the Vorticity Experiment, the mission will launch from the Andøya Space Center in Andenes, Norway with a launch window of March 17-26.

ANDENES, Norway – A NASA rocket team will soon begin its mission to study giant, hurricane-like swirls in the upper atmosphere to understand weather patterns that impact the whole planet.

Called the Vorticity Experiment (VortEx), the mission will launch from the Andøya Space Center in the town of Andenes in northern Norway. The launch window will be between March 17 and 26, according to the Andøya Space Center.

The primary objective of the mission is to learn how high-altitude winds produce a phenomenon known as buoyancy waves, NASA said.

What are buoyancy waves?

Buoyancy waves are large pulses of energy that drive changes where the Earth’s atmosphere blends into space.

According to NASA, buoyancy waves occur when a gust or disturbance suddenly pushes denser air upwards into a lower pressure region, creating an oscillation as the atmosphere tries to balance itself out.

These oscillations lead to waves that spread or ripple away from the source of the disturbance, they added.

"They could come from approaching storm fronts, or winds hitting the mountains and being sent upwards," said Gerald Lehmacher, a professor of physics at Clemson University in South Carolina and principal investigator for the VortEx mission.


As buoyancy waves ripple out, they may also move upwards and pass through stable layers of the atmosphere. In doing so, they can produce giant swirls of air.

These swirls, or vortices, are believed to stretch tens of miles across. Because of their immense size, vortices are too large to measure and study with conventional approaches, NASA said.

To overcome this, Lehmacher designed VortEx to measure the vortices.

How will the rockets study the vortices?

According to NASA, the VortEx mission will use four rockets that will be launched two at a time. Each pair consists of one high-flyer and one low-flyer, launched a few minutes apart.

The high-flyers will measure the winds and will peak at about 224 miles (360 kilometers), NASA said. The low-flyers, reaching approximately 87 miles (140 kilometers) altitude, will measure air density, which affects how vortices form.


The rockets will make their measurements for a few minutes before returning to the surface and splashing down into the Norwegian Sea.

A livestream of the VortEx launch will be broadcast on the Andøya Space Center YouTube channel beginning March 17 at 4:30 p.m. E.T.