NASA is poised to launch a roaring rocket to see up close how Earth’s atmosphere is slowly filtering into space. The US space agency said that understanding atmospheric leakage on Earth has applications throughout the Universe, from predicting which distant planets might be habitable, to reconstructing how Mars became the desolate and exposed landscape that it is today. .
The VISIONS-2 mission, short for Visualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2, will launch no earlier than December 4. A sonic rocket makes flights into space short and specific before returning to Earth just minutes later. Sound rockets are unique among science spacecraft in their superior prowess. They can be transported to remote locations, where they are targeted and fired at short-lived events, such as the sudden formation of the Northern Lights, at any time.
The Northern Lights are of great interest to the VISIONS-2 team, but not only because of its otherworldly glow. The play of aurora is a fundamental factor in the atmospheric escape process, which is why the planets, including the Earth, gradually lose their atmosphere in space. “Earth is losing weight,” said Thomas Moore, a NASA space physicist. “Enough observations have been made to know that 100 to several hundred tons of atmosphere go into space every day,” Moore said. Moore estimates that at that rate, Earth will retain its atmosphere for a billion years.
Scientists long thought that oxygen, which weighed 16 times the mass of hydrogen, was too heavy to escape Earth’s gravity. However, space near Earth is filled with much more oxygen than anyone would have expected. The aurora is formed when energetic electrons, accelerated in electric and magnetic fields in space near Earth, collide with and excite atmospheric gases, which emit brilliant shades of red, green, and yellow while relaxing to a more energy state. low. These unruly electrons also create a cascade of havoc in the process, including conducting electrical currents that heat the upper atmosphere in patches of spots.
In some cases, that heating is enough to give the lost oxygen atoms enough energy to escape. VISIONS-1, the precursor to the current mission, was launched from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska in 2013, where they studied the oxygen outflow from the aurora that forms on the night side of Earth, the part of the planet that temporarily away from the Sun. For the VISIONS-2 mission, the team will travel to Svalbard, a remote archipelago off the north coast of Norway, where aurora can be found on the day’s side.
VISIONS-2 is the first of nine rockets to be launched in the next 14 months as part of the Grand Challenge Initiative, an international collaboration to explore the unusual portal between Earth and space.