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NASA satellite the size of a small piano shot into space Wednesday atop an air-launched rocket, kicking off a two-year mission to study odd clouds high above Earth that shine brightest at night.
The U.S. space agency's Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft rode an Orbital Sciences-built Pegasus XL booster into to orbit at 4:26 p.m. EDT (2026 GMT, 1:26 p.m. PDT), after falling free from its parent aircraft while flying 39,000 feet (11,887 meters) above the Pacific Ocean.
"It was nominal, the spacecraft is power positive, the solar arrays are deployed and we're in the right place," NASA launch director Omar Baez said after the satellite reached orbit. "You can't call it any better than that."
The probe began its Wednesday space shot at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, where its Stargazer L-1011 parent aircraft took off towards an airborne launch zone.
NASA's AIM spacecraft is designed to seek out and study noctilucent - or 'night shining' - clouds, odd collections of ice crystals that form near the edge of space some 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth's polar regions. The clouds form so high above Earth that they reflect sunlight after the Sun has dipped below Earth's horizon.
But while the phenomena were first observed in 1885, researchers still don't know how the clouds form, why they vary and their connections to Earth's changing climate or the Sun's energy.
a two-year mission to study odd clouds