A NASA rocket, designed to measure the Earth’s life-supporting secret, will be launched from a small Norwegian town next week.
Why does Earth support life, while no other planet in the universe do not?
“It’s one of the most fundamental questions in all of science: Why are we here? And it’s what Endurance is after,” said Glyn Collinson, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and principal investigator for NASA’s Endurance mission.
NASA’s Endurance mission will attempt to measure Earth’s global electric potential, or how much Earth’s electric field “tugs” at electrically charged particles in the air. This electric potential is expected to be very weak, making it difficult to measure – and one reason Earth can support life.
Endurance’s launch window from the small town of Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, opens on May 9.
With his team and rocket experiment, Collinson is traveling to the northernmost launch range in the world.
There his team will launch their experiment through Earth’s magnetic north pole.
“We had to invent a brand-new technology to do this on Earth, using the technique we pioneered at Venus,” Collinson said.
Once airborne, the Endurance mission will measure electrons escaping from Earth’s atmosphere – part of a gradual process of atmospheric escape that has been happening for billions of years. These electrons escape Earth at a specific, predictable speed, but they should be slowed ever so slightly by Earth’s global electric potential.
Collinson’s instruments will attempt to measure that subtle slowing effect to find out how strong it is.
“One of the reasons Earth may be habitable is because we have this very weak electrical potential,” according to Collinson.
The Endurance team estimates a strength of about 0.3 volts, some 25 times weaker than on Venus and so weak it has foiled all previous attempts at measurement. “It’s not even as strong as a watch battery – but it should be there,” Collinson added.
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