NASA recently launched a mission to explore and study the ionosphere, a region of Earth’s upper atmosphere. The mission has been called the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) mission and is the first of its kind to be flown aboard a commercial communications satellite.
The ionosphere is an important yet under-studied part of Earth’s atmosphere. It houses satellites, other forms of technology, and the International Space Station. This is also the part of the atmosphere were radiation from the sun and atmospheric gas collide, creating a volatile and constantly changing environment. Scientists worry that radio signals passing through the ionosphere could become broken down or garbled, creating a huge impact on our daily lives.
Engineers and researchers hope to determine what the cause of the constant change in the region is and how it interacts with Earth’s magnetic field. Studying space weather can help improve life on earth as well as lead to safer exploration for astronauts. While some information was gained from the use of instruments on the ground, scientists needed another vantage point. This lead to the development of GOLD.
Once fully operational, GOLD is to scan the ionosphere and upper atmosphere once every 30 minutes. These scans should provide scientists on the ground information about the temperature and weather in that region. This type of information had not been available before and could lead to numerous breakthroughs. The mission has the potential to last for years, providing a long-term look at the same data.
In addition to studying the weather and temperature, GOLD is also going to gather data relevant to a new area of research. Historically, scientists believed that the sun’s radiation had the biggest impact on space weather, as a result of its effects on the upper atmosphere. However, recent evidence suggests that space weather is equally as affected by events on Earth, such as tsunamis. Data gathered from GOLD can also be used to support or discount this theory.
The Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is an instrument set to launch later this year. Its purpose is to provide supplementary information, complimenting the data gathered by GOLD. ICON is planned to orbit at a much lower altitude, only 350 miles above Earth, compared to GOLD’s 22,000 miles. In addition to gathering the same type of information as GOLD, ICON also has the capacity to measure particles and particle movement. When this data is combined, researchers hope to know more about the influence Earth has on space.