Auroras are one of the most beautiful things on Earth as anyone lucky enough to see them in person will tell you. But, much like everything else that's beautiful on Earth and beyond, we don't know that much about them.A new NASA mission will attempt to explain more about the phenomenon with particular interest in what happens to oxygen atoms in the upper atmosphere.
To do this, a team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and The Aerospace Corporation will launch a small sounding rocket packed with instruments during a cold night in Alaska.
They're ready to launch as early as tomorrow night, but the conditions have to be right and, of course, an aurora has to be visible.
The VISIONS (VISualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral atom imaging during a Substorm) will flight up into the atmosphere to study the phenomenon up close, before splashing down into the Antarctic Ocean 15 minutes later.
NASA wants to find out how it's possible for oxygen atoms to leave the Earth's atmosphere and escape into space.
Gravity should prevent them from leaving and their speeds in the lower altitudes where the auroras occur aren't great enough to push them all the way through, at least as far as scientists know.
The phenomenon occurs all the time, but it's intensified during the auroras making it the best time to study it.
"This oxygen would normally never gain enough energy to leave the atmosphere. On the other hand, at very high altitudes, satellite experiments have measured oxygen atoms moving faster than 50 miles per second," Doug Rowland, VISIONS principal investigator at Goddard, said.
"These experiments have shown that if oxygen can reach these high altitudes, there are plenty of ways for it to gain even more energy, in which case the oxygen atoms can escape near-Earth space entirely. What we don’t know is how the oxygen gets enough energy to fight against gravity and reach the higher altitudes where these slingshots are active," he explained.