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Oxygen is constantly leaking out of Earth's atmosphere and into space. Now, ESA's formation-flying quartet of satellites, Cluster, has discovered the physical mechanism that is driving the escape. It turns out that the Earth's own magnetic field is accelerating the oxygen away.
At present, the escape of oxygen is nothing to worry about. Compared to the Earth's stock of the life-supporting gas, the amount escaping is negligible. However, in the far future when the Sun begins to heat up in old age, the balance might change and the oxygen escape may become significant. "We can only predict these future changes if we understand the mechanisms involved," says Nilsson.