Short for Visualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2, VISIONS-2 was tasked with studying a phenomenon known as atmospheric escape, which causes atmospheric gases — hydrogen and oxygen, in particular — to leak into outer space.
Although atmospheric escape is not completely understood, this mysterious phenomenon has been linked to the formation of auroras. For this reason, VISIONS-2 has sent two sounding rockets into Earth's northern polar cusp to image the oxygen outflow of the aurora borealis.
The twin spacecraft — specifically, two Black Brant X rockets — were launched in the early morning of December 7, lifting off from Ny-Alesund in the Svalbard archipelago, Norway. Aimed toward the northern lights, the rockets soared through space at 6:06 a.m. and 6:08 a.m. ET, on a quest to map the oxygen outflow coming from the aurora.
Unlike other similar missions, which monitored a series of oxygen outflow events in order to get the bigger picture of the phenomenon, VISIONS-2 tracked down a single aurora to make an in-depth analysis of one outflow event.
"Not all outflow events are the same, but understanding one in great detail would provide significant scientific value," NASA pointed out.
The launch was declared a success, with preliminary data already coming in to report that the rockets achieved their purpose. "Preliminary information shows that the flights of the two Black Brant X rockets were successful and good data was received," stated space agency officials.
The Black Brant X rockets "gathered data to study how particles from Earth's atmosphere can escape to space through a hole in our planet's magnetic field," NASA informed via Twitter earlier today.
"Understanding atmospheric escape on Earth has applications all over the universe — from predicting which far-off planets might be habitable, to piecing together how Mars became the desolate, exposed landscape it is today."The launch of the VISIONS-2 rockets kick-starts a larger international campaign called the Grand Challenge Initiative (GCI) — Cusp, which will fly eight more missions into the northern polar cusp over the next 14 months. This area of Earth's magnetosphere, or the protective bubble around our planet that keeps radiation out, represents a weak spot where charged particles coming from the sun pierce through the atmosphere.
VISIONS-2 will be shortly followed by a second GCI mission from NASA — TRICE-2, or Twin Rockets to Investigate Cusp Electrodynamics-2 — due to launch another pair of sounding rockets from Andoya Space Center in Andenes, Norway.TRICE-2 will employ two Black Brant XII rockets to measure the ions in Earth's atmosphere and detect any steps, or abrupt changes, in ion energy levels, explains NASA. The launch window for the TRICE-2 mission remains open until December 19.
Aside from the United States, research teams from Canada, Norway, the U.K., and Japan are also participating in the GCI campaign and will launch their own sounding rockets, either from Andoya Space Center or Ny-Alesund.