Why NASA is sending rockets into Earth's leaky atmosphere

Narration: Miles Hatfield


There’s one thing that stands between us and the harsh environment of space — our atmosphere. The part of Earth that sustains all life.

But here, in the closest town to the North Pole, it’s slowly leaking away.

A team headed there to launch rockets into the leak. But it’s not the lack of atmosphere that they’re concerned about.

The leak is a natural process that will take billions of years. So, we’re not going to run out any time soon.

It’s part of the larger story of how a planet’s atmosphere changes over time — a key factor in the search for life on other planets.

Doug — “We have 35 residents and 60 of our team together in a town that is completely isolated — there’s a plane twice a week and there’s a thousand polar bears nearby.”

This is Doug Rowland, a NASA scientist, who’s taken his team to Ny-Alesund on the island of Svalbard.

The island lies beneath one of two regions near Earth’s poles called the cusps.

It’s where we can access space directly.

And where a hundred tons of atmosphere escapes into space each day.

This escape gives clues to how long an atmosphere will last and ultimately whether it says around long enough to sustain life.

Doug — “We’re trying to understand is how did Earth’s atmosphere evolve over time and how do other planets that might be like Earth or more dissimilar to Earth, how did their atmospheres evolve.”

So, Doug joined forces with Joran Moen – a professor at the University of Oslo – who started the “Grand Challenge Initiative – Cusp”.

It’s an international mission to launch 12 rockets into the Earth’s northern cusp.

And Doug — he’s the mission leader for the first two rockets of the campaign.

Doug — “We don’t want to waste our rocket. It takes us 3 years to make the rocket and only 15 minutes to use it and I don’t want to waste my shot here.”

He’s using a sounding rocket, which is different from the bigger rockets that carry satellites and humans into space.

It’s a small, suborbital rocket that flies briefly into space, collects real-time data for around 15 minutes, then falls back to Earth.

t’s affordable, quick to build, and can launch towards a precise point.

Joran — “The major advantage is that you can launch into a target on the sky.”

But there’s a limited launch window and only one chance to get the launch right.

Doug — “We have these unguided rockets. They go where you point them unless the wind is blowing because the wind literally just blows them over. We don’t launch when there’s high wind.”

So to measure the winds, they launch balloons with GPS trackers.

They’re released every 15 to 30 minutes. And then, they’re monitored to see how fast the winds are carrying them.

Preben — “The ground winds were about 12, 13 meters per second. Gusting — 17. It’s just way off.”

Doug — “You’re filled with trepidation. Oh my gosh, is this thing that I built, is it going to work after all this.”

[voice from speakers] — “This that means we are scrubbing this operation for today and try again tomorrow.”

The mission is named Visualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2, or VISIONS-2.

In short, they’re looking at how oxygen is getting enough energy to escape.

Doug — “It’s a good test of how atmospheric escape works. Earth’s gravity should hold onto the oxygen, and yet we see this gas shooting off into space. We’re trying to figure out how that works.

Joran — “That is a science question that has been hanging around for four decades.”

Fortunately, anyone can see atmospheric escape at the right place and time.

Joran —“In Svalbard, we have the so-called polar night. It’s dark all 24 hours.”

This continual darkness is key for witnessing this.

This is the cusp aurora. It’s a type of northern lights that appears between 8:00 a.m. and noon, and you can only see it when it’s dark during the day.

It looks similar to the aurora that occurs at night. But when these iridescent colors dance at this hour each day, a hundred tons of oxygen escapes from Earth’s atmosphere into space.

Joran — “This is our sport now, to chase the aurora.”

Working with them is the EISCAT radar and Kjell Henriksen Observatory. They have additional instruments to find the aurora.

Kjellmar — “Sometimes it’s cloudy so we use radars to track the the cusp.”

Fred — “We can give advice that this is the right type of aurora.”

This is the wall of science — a collection of data from satellites and ground instruments that helps them predict where the cusp aurora will be.

Doug — “So, the cusp actually isn’t in a fixed point in space—it kind of moves around.”

What’s controlling the cusp’s movement is the Sun interacting with Earth.

Our planet is surrounded by a magnetic field that helps us hold on to our atmosphere.

But at the north and south poles the magnetic field bends inwards, creating a corridor between Earth and space.

Sophie — “When energy is released from the Sun, via. a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, all of that energy in the form of radiation rides down the magnetic field lines of the Earth and is transferred and dumped into the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Electrons cascade into Earth’s atmosphere.

They accelerate and collide with oxygen particles giving them energy to release light and sometimes, enough energy to escape.

Collectively, this forms the cusp aurora and streams of escaping oxygen.

Kjellmar — “This cusp is in constant motion.”

Doug — “And we’ve got a fixed trajectory—we really can’t aim where the cusp is, we have to wait for the cusp to come across our line of sight.”

Doug — “Can you guys hear Kjellmar? We’d like you, as soon as you see an indication that the cusp is moving close, to move it -- the radar dish if we can.”

Kjellmar — “This is EISCAT. It’s been very quiet. Very difficult to launch.”

[behind camera] “Do you think we’ll launch today?”

Glenn — “No”

John — “Probably a 60% chance of launching.”

Sophie — “When we kind of started seeing this really good data, this clock started counting down, and that’s when everyone realized this is going to happen. We’re going to launch.”

John — “We’re doing everything we can to get that launch off before the aurora goes away, and it’s really, really challenging and nerve-wracking at that point. You can see the tension just rise in everybody when that happens.”

Sophie — “And we immediately turn around and ran right back in to look at all the data that was coming back from the instruments.”

Sophie — “You know how much time and effort went into it because we all worked on it and there’s just nothing that compares to that feeling.”

John — “Everybody, in every one of those little places, you know, really just so happy to contribute to getting the science. It's really an incredible experience. “

This is a story about what it takes to launch science instruments into space.

But the real adventure will be in the data they sent back.

Hidden within the numbers will be answers that reach far beyond Earth, shedding light on how atmospheres throughout the universe change, evolve, and perhaps, support life.