Earth’s Atmosphere Is Leaking Into Space, So NASA Is Launching Two Rockets To Investigate Why

Called the VISIONS-2 mission, the rockets will fly off into the night from Norway's Svalbard archipelago to photograph a phenomenon known as atmospheric escape.

Long-exposure photograph of the night sky over Ny-Alesund, Svalbard.
Chris Pirner / NASA

Called the VISIONS-2 mission, the rockets will fly off into the night from Norway's Svalbard archipelago to photograph a phenomenon known as atmospheric escape.

Earth’s atmosphere is slowly leaking into space, losing gaseous material at an average rate of around 90 tons per day. However, there’s no reason to fret.

According to the European Space Agency, Earth’s atmosphere weighs around five quadrillion tons.

“Given the expanse of our atmosphere, 90 tons per day amounts to a small leak. So, we are in no danger of running out any time soon.”

In fact, scientists estimate that our planet will hold on to its atmosphere for at least a billion years. Nevertheless, this peculiar phenomenon in which Earth’s atmospheric gases keep trickling into outer space — also known as atmospheric escape — merits investigation.

“The Earth is losing weight,” said Thomas Moore, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who specializes in atmospheric escape. “There have been enough observations to know that anywhere from a hundred to several hundred tons of atmosphere are going into space every day.”

To understand more about our planet’s atmosphere, particularly how and why it is streaming into space, NASA is launching the VISIONS-2 mission — a pair of sounding rockets due to take off later this month.

Short for Visualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2, the mission is tasked with photographing Earth’s “leaky atmosphere.” In order to do so, VISIONS-2 will fly two rockets into the northern polar cusp to chase the aurora borealis.

What Is The Northern Polar Cusp?

The Earth’s magnetosphere forms a strong protective barrier from the sun’s radiation and the solar wind — charged particles coming from the sun and which flow through the entire solar system. (This mysterious phenomenon that affects all the planets will be studied for the next seven years by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which took off in August on a mission to “touch the sun.”)

However, the magnetosphere has two vulnerable regions, known as the polar cusps, which occur at the planet’s poles on the sun-facing side of Earth.

Illustration of Earth's magnetosphere, showing the northern and southern polar cusps.
  Andøya Space Center/Trond Abrahamsen / NASA

As NASA points out, the polar cusps “are the only places where particles from the solar wind can stream directly into our atmosphere.”

“The cusps are like magnetic bridges between Earth and space, where energetic electrons from the sun crash into atmospheric particles and create a dayside aurora.”

Building on the work of VISIONS-1 — which launched from Alaska in 2013 to study auroras that form on Earth’s night side — VISIONS-2 will lift off from Ny-Alesund, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, to image a splendid aurora lighting up the sky on the planet’s day side.

What Do Auroras Have To Do With Earth’s Leaking Atmosphere?

The phenomenon of atmospheric escape is intimately connected to aurora formation, explains NASA.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, auroras are created when charged particles from the sun hit Earth’s atmosphere, where they interact with nitrogen and oxygen molecules. This interaction causes atmospheric gases to emit bright hues of red, green, and yellow — the splendid northern and southern lights, aurora borealis and australis — while also creating “a cascade of havoc in the process, including driving electric currents that heat the upper atmosphere in splotchy patches.”

As a result, the light hydrogen atoms escape Earth’s gravity and float out of the atmosphere and into outer space. The same goes for oxygen, which — despite being 16 times heavier than hydrogen — gets sufficiently heated during auroras “to give stray oxygen atoms enough energy to escape.” This explains why the near-Earth space environment is packing so much oxygen that originated on our planet.

Magnificent northern lights shining over the Lofoten islands in Norway.
  Denis Belitsky / Shutterstock

Just like its predecessor, VISIONS-2 will be mapping oxygen outflow occurring within auroras. Instead of targeting multiple events to get an overview of the entire process, NASA has chosen to study a single oxygen outflow event and will be chasing the perfect aurora to unravel the phenomenon.

This is where sounding rockets come into play. As NASA officials explain, these rockets “can be carted to remote locations, where they are aimed and shot into short-lived events — like the sudden formation of the aurora borealis — at a moment’s notice.”

The VISIONS-2 mission is slated to take to space in the upcoming weeks and has a launch window spanning from December 4 to December 18.

Eight other sounding rockets will be following the mission over the next 14 months, as part of the Grand Challenge Initiative — an international project aimed at exploring the northern polar cusp to “crack the code of this unusual portal between Earth and space.”