Arctic rocket launch could uncover unique features of Earth’s life-sustaining atmosphere

The northern polar ice cap as seen from the Endurance payload as it reaches peak altitude or apogee of 475 miles. Credit: NASA

A Leicester expert in space weather has helped launch a NASA mission from deep within the Arctic Circle which could uncover unique features of our atmosphere that enable life on Earth.

Dr Suzie Imber, Associate Professor in Space Physics at the University of Leicester, is part of a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) team working from the world’s northernmost launch range in Svalbard, Norway on NASA’s Endurance mission.

Researchers launched an advanced rocket on Wednesday into the Earth’s atmosphere to measure its electric potential by detecting the charged particles escaping into space.

It is hoped that data captured by the mission could help scientists understand why Earth managed to keep its oxygen molecules – required to form water, and crucial to life as we know it – but why Venus, with a much stronger electric potential, was never able to support life.

The rocket mission is supported by ionospheric radars operated by EISCAT (European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association). Dr Imber is Principal Investigator (PI) for the radar experiment in support of Endurance, working alongside BAS’ Dr Andrew Kavanagh, a member of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)-funded UK EISCAT Support Group. The pair have also worked in collaboration with colleagues at UNIS, Norway.

Dr Imber said: “We played a crucial role in the go/no-go for launch, and as such were monitoring our radar data continually to ensure that conditions were optimal for launch.

“The nature of a sounding rocket experiment is that you only have one shot at collecting the data you need. The entire flight is only around 15 minutes long, so it was essential that we had the radar data we needed to be confident when we confirmed launch – even though this meant working 11pm to 6am every night until it launched!

“The decision to launch was high-tension for all of us involved, but we were delighted that the launch was successful, the payload deployed as expected, and look forward to analysing the data, which will help us to understand processes in the upper atmosphere and ionosphere.”

The Endurance rocket launches from Svalbard, Norway. Credit: NASA

Glyn Collinson, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and PI 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, added: “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 into how our upper atmosphere can influence the way different parts of our space environment respond to space weather events.”