On Jan. 25, we’re going for GOLD!
We’re launching an instrument called Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, GOLD for short. It’s a new mission that will study a complicated — and not yet fully understood — region of near-Earth space, called the ionosphere.
Space is not completely empty: It’s teeming with fast-moving energized particles and electric and magnetic fields that guide their motion. At the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, these particles and fields — the ionosphere — co-exist with the upper reaches of the neutral atmosphere.
That makes this a complicated place. Big events in the lower atmosphere, like hurricanes or tsunamis, can create waves that travel all the way up to that interface to space, changing the wind patterns and causing disruptions.
It’s also affected by space weather. The Sun is a dynamic star, and it releases spurts of energized particles and blasts of solar material carrying electric and magnetic fields that travel out through the solar system. Depending on their direction, these bursts have the potential to disrupt space near Earth.
This combination of factors makes it hard to predict changes in the ionosphere — and that can have a big impact. Communications signals, like radio waves and signals that make our GPS systems work, travel through this region, and sudden changes can distort them or even cut them off completely.
Low-Earth orbiting satellites — including the International Space Station — also fly through the ionosphere, so understanding how it fluctuates is important for protecting these satellites and astronauts.
GOLD is a spectrograph, an instrument that breaks light down into its component wavelengths, measuring their intensities. Breaking light up like this helps scientists see the behavior of individual chemical elements — for instance, separating the amount of oxygen versus nitrogen. GOLD sees in far ultraviolet light, a type of light that’s invisible to our eyes.
GOLD is a hosted payload. The instrument is hitching a ride aboard SES-14, a commercial communications satellite built by Airbus for SES Government Solutions, which owns and operates the satellite.
Also launching this year is the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, which will also study the ionosphere and neutral upper atmosphere. But while GOLD will fly in geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above the Western Hemisphere, ICON will fly just 350 miles above Earth, able to gather close up images of this region.
Together, these missions give us an unprecedented look at the ionosphere and upper atmosphere, helping us understand the very nature of how our planet interacts with space.
To learn more about this region of space and the GOLD mission, visit: nasa.gov/gold.
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