British scientists back NASA rocket mission to uncover secrets of atmosphere
The British Antarctic Survey, BAS, Space Weather team is supporting a new NASA experiment that aims to uncover the unique features of our atmosphere that support life on Earth.
It is known that one of the main reasons the Earth is able to support life is that it is a watery planet, but billions of years ago the same was true for other planets, including Venus. Recent research suggests that one of the reasons Venus was never able to sustain life despite this is because the electrical potential of its atmosphere drives positively charged particles away from the planet’s surface. This includes the oxygen particles necessary for the formation of water. Earth is thought to have a similar, but much weaker electrical potential to Venus, which is insufficient to disturb water on the Earth’s surface.
Now, a new NASA mission will launch an advanced rocket into Earth’s atmosphere to measure its electrical potential by detecting charged particles escaping into space. The Endurance mission will launch from the world’s northernmost launch pad in Svalbard, Norway, through Earth’s magnetic polar cap. The launch window opened on Monday, May 9, and launch is expected to occur as soon as the solar, magnetic, and local weather conditions are all perfect.
The rocket’s mission is supported by ionospheric radars operated by EISCAT (European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association). The UK is a member of EISCAT through UKRI and the principal investigator of the radar experiment is Dr Suzie Imber from the University of Leicester. Dr Imber is supported by Dr Andrew Kavanagh of BAS, a member of the UK’s NERC-funded EISCAT support group, and works in collaboration with colleagues at UNIS, Norway.
EISCAT radars provide real-time observations to support the Endurance mission. Giant radars on the Norwegian mainland and near the launch site will measure atmospheric conditions to ensure they are suitable for the rocket launch.
Glyn Collinson, space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and principal investigator of the Endurance mission, said: “This is one of the most fundamental questions in all of science: why are we here? And that’s what Endurance is looking for. The reward, if we succeed, is fantastic because we will be measuring this fundamental property of the Earth, which is directly related to understanding why we are here.
Dr Andrew Kavanagh, BAS Middle Atmosphere Vertical Coupling Analyst, supporting the Endurance mission, said: “This mission demonstrates the importance of the interaction between space science and polar research. BAS’s presence in the polar regions gives us a unique view of space and our planet’s place in the solar system. This experiment will not only expand our understanding of planetary evolution, but it will also provide insight into how our upper atmosphere can influence how different parts of our space environment respond to space weather events.