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See the Space Force's 1st small rocket launch of 2021 in these photos

A small sounding rocket launches an experimental payload for the U.S. Space Force and Air Force Research Laboratory from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia on March 3, 2021. (Image credit: U.S. Space Force/AFRL)

The U.S. Space Force launched its first small rocket flight of 2021 this month in a science experiment that dumped a bit of water vapor into the Earth's upper atmosphere.

A three-stage Terrier-Terrier-Oriole suborbital rocket launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia on the afternoon of March 3. No exact time was provided in press materials from NASA or the Space Force.

Related: The history of rockets

This eerie red glow in the sky was created by water vapor launched to the upper atmosphere by the U.S. Space Force sounding rocket on March 3, 2021. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wallops Flight Facility via Twitter)

The rocket was studying the process of ionization — the process by which a molecule gains or loses electrons, which carry electrical charge. It flew to Earth's ionosphere, a zone of Earth's atmosphere filled with electrically charged particles.

The mission reached an altitude of "several hundred miles," according to a tweet from NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center. The rocket released its payload roughly 500 miles (804 kilometers) offshore while still in the ionosphere.

Sounding rockets are typically used to run a science mission for a few minutes in space or in the upper atmosphere, often to study processes in the higher reaches of the atmosphere or at the edge of space.

These rockets are cheaper than conventional rocket launches and also provide more close-up detail on atmospheric processes than a satellite can, given satellites typically orbit several hundred miles or kilometers above Earth at the least.

A three-stage Terrier-Terrier-Oriole sounding rocket launched the U.S. Space Force's first small rocket mission on March 3, 2021. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wallops Flight Facility via Twitter)

The launch was the first Space Force small launch mission in 2021, and also the first sounding rocket launch under the Sounding Rocket Program-4 contract, the Los Angeles Air Force Base said in a statement. Under the program, Space Vector Corp. and Northrop Grumman received a $424 million multiple-award contract in 2018 to send sounding rockets aloft over seven years, according to Space News.

The March 3 launch took place with a vehicle built by Space Vector, with Kratos Space and Missile Defense providing the integration, interface and mission planning for the launch, the Los Angeles Air Force Base said.

This long exposure of the Space Force's sounding rocket launch shows the Terrier-Terrior-Oriole rocket as a bright streak headed into the sky. (Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wallops Flight Facility via Twitter)

Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, mission director for the launch, noted in the base statement that it only took 16 months to launch the rocket from its contract award, amid "the challenging conditions" the novel coronavirus pandemic presented since March 2020. He also said the mission "is a great example of innovation" in contracting practices, including using small launch contracts for experimental missions.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.