NASA is all set to launch a rocket in early December to probe how the Earth's atmosphere is slowly leaking into space.
NASA's VISIONS-2 (Visualising Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2) mission will be launched from the world's northernmost rocket launching centre Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard - located off the northern coast of Norway and run by Norway's Andøya Space Center.
According to NASA, VISIONS-2 mission will launch no earlier than 4 December.
"The Earth is losing weight," said Thomas Moore, a Goddard space physicist who specialises in atmospheric escape.
"There have been enough observations to know that anywhere from a hundred to several hundred tons of atmosphere is going into space every day."
However, these observations are not too shocking for scientists. Sir James Jeans was the first to suggest in his theoretical study in 1904 that the Earth's atmosphere might be escaping into space.
Despite these results, scientists always believed that oxygen can't escape the Earth's gravity as it is too heavy, and would require about 100 times more energy to do that.
In 1960s and 70s, several studies revealed that there is much more oxygen in near-Earth space than was earlier expected. Scientists suspected that auroras could be the processes energising oxygen molecules and enabling them to escape into space.
In 2013, NASA launched VISIONS-1 mission from the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska to study oxygen outflow from aurora formed on Earth's night side. Now, for VISIONS-2 mission, the space agency has selected that part of the planet where dayside aurora can be found.
VISIONS-2 mission will include launching of two sounding rockets into the northern polar cusp.
Sounding rockets are special types of suborbital rockets that make targeted flights into space before falling back within a few minutes. They are easy to carry to remote sites and are characterised by superior dexterity. The rockets can be launched at a moment's notice at sudden occurrence of specific atmospheric events, such as formation of the aurora borealis.
The rockets will enable NASA scientists to use their imaging technique to map outflow of oxygen from the aurora. The mission is expected to collect a decent amount of data about a single oxygen outflow event. Using the data, scientists will be able to see whether the process of energising and heating of oxygen on the dayside aurora are the same as those seen on the night side.
The launch window for VISIONS-2 mission extends from 4 December through 18 December. Over the next 14 months, nine more sounding rockets will be launched from Ny-Ålesund launch centre as part of the Grand Challenge Initiative - Cusp - an international project to solve the mystery of Earth's leaking atmosphere into the space.
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