The British Antarctic Survey, BAS, Space Weather team are supporting a new NASA experiment which aims to uncover unique features of our atmosphere that enable life on Earth.
It is known that one of the key reasons that Earth is able to support life is that it is a watery planet, but billions of years ago the same was true of other planets including Venus. Recent research suggests one reason that Venus was never able to support life in spite of this is that the electric potential of its atmosphere pulls positively charged particles away from the planet’s surface. This includes oxygen particles required to form water. It is thought that Earth has a similar, but much weaker electric potential to Venus that is insufficient to disrupt the water on Earth’s surface.
Now, a new NASA mission will launch an advanced rocket into Earth’s atmosphere to measure its electric potential by detecting the charged particles escaping into space. The Endurance mission will be launched from the northernmost launch range in the world located in Svalbard, Norway, though the Earth’s magnetic polar cap. The launch window opened on Monday 9th May, and the launch is expected to take place as soon as the solar, magnetic, and local weather conditions are all perfect.
The rocket mission is being supported by ionospheric radars operated by EISCAT (European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association). The UK is a member of EISCAT via UKRI and the principal investigator for the radar experiment is Dr Suzie Imber of the University of Leicester. Dr Imber is being supported by BAS’ Dr Andrew Kavanagh, a member of the NERC-funded UK EISCAT Support Group, and is working in collaboration with colleagues at UNIS, Norway.
The EISCAT radars are providing real time observations to support the Endurance mission. Giant radars on the Norwegian mainland and near to the launch site will measure atmospheric conditions to ensure that they are right for the rocket launch.
Glyn Collinson, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and principal investigator for the Endurance mission said: “It’s one of the most fundamental questions in all of science: Why are we here? And it’s what Endurance is after. The reward, if we’re successful, is fantastic because we’ll measure this fundamental property of the Earth, which is directly related to understanding why we’re here.”
Dr Andrew Kavanagh, BAS Middle Atmosphere Vertical Coupling Analyst who is supporting the Endurance mission said: “This mission demonstrates the importance of the interplay between space science and polar research. BAS’ presence in the polar regions gives us a unique view into 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 give insight how our upper atmosphere can influence the way different parts of our space environment respond to Space Weather events”