Category: sun

Meet Our ICONic New Satellite

The boundary between Earth and space is complicated and constantly changing. Unlike the rest of the atmosphere, the upper atmosphere near the edge of space has a mix of both neutral particles similar to the air we breathe, as well as electrically charged particles called ions. Changes in this region are unpredictable, but they can affect satellites and garble signals, like GPS, that pass through this region. That’s why we’re launching ICON (the Ionospheric Connection Explorer) to get our first-ever comprehensive look at our interface to space.

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About 60 miles above Earth’s surface, Earth’s atmosphere gives way to space. The change is gradual: The gases of the atmosphere get steadily thinner the higher you go. On the edge of space, the Sun’s radiation cooks some of those thin gases until they lose an electron (or two or three), creating a population of electrically charged particles swarming alongside the neutral particles. These charged particles make up the ionosphere.

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Because the particles of the ionosphere are electrically charged, they respond uniquely to electric and magnetic fields. Dynamic conditions in space — including shifting fields and surges of charged particles, collectively called space weather — induce shifts in the ionosphere that can have far-reaching effects. The ionosphere is where space weather manifests on Earth, and it’s inextricably connected with the neutral upper atmosphere — so distortions in one part affect the other.  

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Changes in the ionosphere and upper atmosphere — including sudden shifts in composition, density, temperature, and conductivity — can affect satellites, building up electric charge that has the potential to disrupt instruments, and garble signals like those used by GPS satellites. Predicting these variances is hard, because the causes are so complex: They’re driven not only by space weather — usually a product of solar activity — but also by regular weather down near Earth’s surface.  

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Differences in pressure caused by events like hurricanes, or even something as simple as a sustained wind over a mountain range, can ripple upwards until they reach this region and trigger fluctuations. Weather’s influence on the upper atmosphere was only discovered in the past ten years or so — and ICON is the first mission designed specifically to look at that interaction.

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ICON carries four types of instruments to study the ionosphere and upper atmosphere. Three of them rely on taking far-away pictures of something called airglow, a faint, global glow produced by reactive compounds in the upper atmosphere. The fourth type collects and analyzes particles directly.

  • MIGHTI (the Michelson Interferometer for Global High-resolution Thermospheric Imaging) uses Doppler shift — the same effect that makes a siren change pitch as an ambulance passes you — to precisely track the speed and direction of upper-atmosphere winds.
  • FUV (the Far Ultraviolet instrument) measures airglow produced by certain types of oxygen and nitrogen molecules on Earth’s day side, as well as oxygen ions on Earth’s night side.
  • EUV (the Extreme Ultraviolet instrument) measures shorter wavelengths of light than FUV. Airglow measured by EUV is produced by oxygen ions on Earth’s day side, which make up the lion’s share of Earth’s daytime ionosphere.
  • The two identical IVMs (Ion Velocity Meters) make very precise measurements of the angle at which ionized gas enters the instruments, helping us build up a picture of how this ionized gas around the spacecraft is moving.
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We’re launching ICON on June 14 Eastern Time on an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which will deploy from Orbital’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. NASA TV will cover the launch — stay tuned to nasa.gov/live for updates and follow the mission on Twitter and Facebook.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.  

Solar System: 10 Things to Know

Movie Night

Summer break is just around the corner. Hang a sheet from the clothesline in the backyard and fire up the projector for a NASA movie night.

1. Mars in a Minute

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Back in the day, movies started with a cartoon. Learn the secrets of the Red Planet in these animated 60 second chunks.

2. Crash of the Titans

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Watch two galaxies collide billions of years from now in this high-definition visualization.

3. Tour the Moon in 4K

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Wait for the dark of the waning Moon next weekend to take in this 4K tour of our constant celestial companion.

4. Seven Years of the Sun

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Watch graceful dances in the Sun’s atmosphere in this series of videos created by our 24/7 Sun-sentinel, the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO).

5. Light ‘Em Up

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Crank up the volume and learn about NASA science for this short video about some of our science missions, featuring a track by Fall Out Boy.

6. Bennu’s Journey

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Follow an asteroid from its humble origins to its upcoming encounter with our spacecraft in this stunning visualization.

7. Lunar Landing Practice

Join Apollo mission pilots as they fly—and even crash—during daring practice runs for landing on the Moon.

8. Earthrise

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Join the crew of Apollo 8 as they become the first human beings to see the Earth rise over the surface of the Moon.

9. Musical Descent to Titan

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Watch a musical, whimsical recreation of the 2005 Huygens probe descent to Titan, Saturn’s giant moon.

10. More Movies

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Our Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio provides a steady stream of fresh videos for your summer viewing pleasure. Come back often and enjoy.

Read the full version of this article on the web HERE

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Our Spacecraft Have Discovered a New Magnetic …

Just as gravity is one key to how things move on Earth, a process called magnetic reconnection is key to how electrically-charged particles speed through space. Now, our Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, or MMS, has discovered magnetic reconnection – a process by which magnetic field lines explosively reconfigure – occurring in a new and surprising way near Earth.

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Invisible to the eye, a vast network of magnetic energy and particles surround our planet — a dynamic system that influences our satellites and technology. The more we understand the way those particles move, the more we can protect our spacecraft and astronauts both near Earth and as we explore deeper into the solar system.

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Earth’s magnetic field creates a protective bubble that shields us from highly energetic particles that stream in both from the Sun and interstellar space. As this solar wind bathes our planet, Earth’s magnetic field lines get stretched. Like elastic bands, they eventually release energy by snapping and flinging particles in their path to supersonic speeds.

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That burst of energy is generated by magnetic reconnection. It’s pervasive throughout the universe — it happens on the Sun, in the space near Earth and even near black holes.

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Scientists have observed this phenomenon many times in Earth’s vast magnetic environment, the magnetosphere. Now, a new study of data from our MMS mission caught the process occurring in a new and unexpected region of near-Earth space. For the first time, magnetic reconnection was seen in the magnetosheath — the boundary between our magnetosphere and the solar wind that flows throughout the solar system and one of the most turbulent regions in near-Earth space.

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The four identical MMS spacecraft — flying through this region in a tight pyramid formation — saw the event in 3D. The arrows in the data visualization below show the hundreds of observations MMS took to measure the changes in particle motion and the magnetic field.

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The data show that this event is unlike the magnetic reconnection we’ve observed before. If we think of these magnetic field lines as elastic bands, the ones in this region are much smaller and stretchier than elsewhere in near-Earth space — meaning that this process accelerates particles 40 times faster than typical magnetic reconnection near Earth. In short, MMS spotted a completely new magnetic process that is much faster than what we’ve seen before.

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What’s more, this observation holds clues to what’s happening at smaller spatial scales, where turbulence takes over the process of mixing and accelerating particles. Turbulence in space moves in random ways and creates vortices, much like when you mix milk into coffee. The process by which turbulence energizes particles in space is still a big area of research, and linking this new discovery to turbulence research may give insights into how magnetic energy powers particle jets in space.

Keep up with the latest discoveries from the MMS mission: @NASASun on Twitter and Facebook.com/NASASunScience.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com. 

Craving some summer Sun? We’re inviting …

Craving some summer Sun? We’re inviting people around the world to submit their names to be placed on a microchip that will travel to the Sun aboard Parker Solar Probe! 

Launching summer 2018, Parker Solar Probe will be our first mission to “touch” a star. The spacecraft – about the size of a small car – will travel right through the Sun’s atmosphere, facing brutal temperatures and radiation as it traces how energy and heat move through the solar corona and explores what accelerates the solar wind and solar energetic particles.

Send your name along for the ride at go.nasa.gov/HotTicket! Submissions will be accepted through April 27, 2018. 

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.

Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Week of March 5: Great Shots
Inspiring views of our solar system and beyond

1-Mars-By-Numbers

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“The first TV image of Mars, hand colored strip-by-strip, from Mariner 4 in 1965. The completed image was framed and presented to JPL director, William H. Pickering. Truly a labor of love for science!” -Kristen Erickson, NASA Science Engagement and Partnerships Director

2-Night Life

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“There are so many stories to this image. It is a global image, but relates to an individual in one glance. There are stories on social, economic, population, energy, pollution, human migration, technology meets science, enable global information, etc., that we can all communicate with similar interests under one image.” -Winnie Humberson, NASA Earth Science Outreach Manager

3-Pale Blue Dot

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“Whenever I see this picture, I wonder…if another species saw this blue dot what would they say and would they want to discover what goes on there…which is both good and bad. However, it would not make a difference within the eternity of space—we’re so insignificant…in essence just dust in the galactic wind—one day gone forever.”

-Dwayne Brown, NASA Senior Communications Official

4-Grand Central

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“I observed the Galactic Center with several X-ray telescopes before Chandra, including the Einstein Observatory and ROSAT. But the Chandra image looks nothing like those earlier images, and it reminded me how complex the universe really is. Also I love the colors.” -Paul Hertz, Director, NASA Astrophysics Division

5-Far Side Photobomb

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“This image from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite captured a unique view of the Moon as it moved in front of the sunlit side of Earth in 2015. It shows a view of the farside of the Moon, which faces the Sun, that is never directly visible to us here on Earth. I found this perspective profoundly moving and only through our satellite views could this have been shared.” -Michael Freilich, Director NASA Earth Science Division

6-”Shocking, Exciting and Wonderful”

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“Pluto was so unlike anything I could imagine based on my knowledge of the Solar System. It showed me how much about the outer solar system we didn’t know. Truly shocking, exciting and wonderful all at the same time.” -Jim Green, Director, NASA Planetary Science Division

7-Slices of the Sun

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“This is an awesome image of the Sun through the Solar Dynamic Observatory’s many filters. It is one of my favorites.” – Peg Luce, Director, NASA Heliophysics Division (Acting)

8-Pluto’s Cold, Cold Heart

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“This high-resolution, false color image of Pluto is my favorite. The New Horizons flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 capped humanity’s initial reconnaissance of every major body in the solar system. To think that all of this happened within our lifetime! It’s a reminder of how privileged we are to be alive and working at NASA during this historic era of space exploration.” – Laurie Cantillo, NASA Planetary Science Public Affairs Officer

9-Family Portrait

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“The Solar System family portrait, because it is a symbol what NASA exploration is really about: Seeing our world in a new and bigger way.” – Thomas H. Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate

10-Share Your Favorite Space Shots

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Tag @NASASolarSystem on your favorite social media platform with a link to your favorite image and few words about why it makes your heart thump.

Check out the full version of this article HERE.

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.   

A magnetic power struggle of galactic proporti…

A magnetic power struggle of galactic proportions – new research highlights the role of the Sun’s magnetic landscape in the development of solar eruptions that can trigger space weather events around Earth.

Using data from our Solar Dynamics Observatory, scientists examined an October 2014 Jupiter-sized sunspot group, an area of complex magnetic fields, often the site of solar activity. This was the biggest group in the past two solar cycles and a highly active region. Though conditions seemed ripe for an eruption, the region never produced a major coronal mass ejection (CME) – a massive, bubble-shaped eruption of solar material and magnetic field – on its journey across the Sun. It did, however, emit a powerful X-class flare, the most intense class of flares. What determines, the scientists wondered, whether a flare is associated with a CME?

The scientists found that a magnetic cage physically prevented a CME from erupting that day. Just hours before the flare, the sunspot’s natural rotation contorted the magnetic rope and it grew increasingly twisted and unstable, like a tightly coiled rubber band.

Credits: Tahar Amari et al./Center for Theoretical Physics/École Polytechnique/NASA Goddard/Joy Ng

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A Year on the Sun Through Our Satellite’s Eyes

Did you know we’re watching the Sun 24/7 from space?

We use a whole
fleet of satellites
to monitor the Sun and its influences on the solar
system. One of those is the Solar Dynamics
Observatory
. It’s been in space for eight years, keeping an eye on the Sun
almost every moment of every day. Launched on Feb. 11, 2010, this satellite
(also known as SDO) was originally designed for a two-year mission, but it’s
still collecting data to this day — and one of our best ways to keep an eye on
our star.

To celebrate another year of SDO, we’re sharing some of our
favorite solar views that the spacecraft sent back to Earth in 2017.

 March: A long spotless
stretch

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For 15 days starting on March 7, SDO
saw the yolk-like spotless Sun in visible light
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The Sun goes through a natural 11-year cycle of activity
marked by two extremes: solar maximum and solar minimum. Sunspots are dark
regions of complex magnetic activity on the Sun’s surface, and the number of
sunspots at any given time is used as an index of solar activity.

  • Solar maximum = intense solar activity and more
    sunspots
  • Solar minimum = less solar activity and fewer
    sunspots

This March 2017 period was the longest stretch of spotlessness since the last solar minimum in April 2010 – a sure sign that the solar cycle is marching on toward the next minimum, which scientists expect in 2019-2020. For comparison, the images on the left are from Feb. 2014 – during the last solar maximum –  and show a much spottier Sun.

June: Energized active
regions

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 A pair of relatively small but frenetic
active regions
– areas of intense and complex magnetic fields – rotated
into SDO’s view May 31 – June 2, while spouting off numerous small flares and
sweeping loops of plasma. The dynamic regions were easily the most remarkable
areas on the Sun during this 42-hour period.

July: Two weeks in the
life of a sunspot

On July 5, SDO watched an active region rotate into view on
the Sun. The satellite continued
to track the region
as it grew and eventually rotated across the Sun and
out of view on July 17.  

With their complex magnetic fields, sunspots are often the
source of interesting solar activity: During its 13-day trip across the face of
the Sun, the active region — dubbed AR12665 — put on a show for our Sun-watching
satellites, producing several solar flares, a coronal mass ejection and a solar
energetic particle event. 

August: An eclipse in
space

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While millions of people in North America experienced a
total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, SDO
saw a partial eclipse from space
. SDO actually sees several
lunar transits
a year from its perspective – but an eclipse on the ground doesn’t necessarily
mean that SDO will see anything out of the ordinary. Even on Aug. 21, SDO saw
only 14 percent of the Sun blocked by the Moon, while most US residents saw 60
percent blockage or more.

September: A spate of
solar activity

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In September 2017, SDO saw a
spate of solar activity
, with the Sun emitting 31 notable flares and
releasing several powerful coronal mass ejections between Sept. 6-10. Solar
flares are powerful bursts of radiation, while coronal mass ejections are
massive clouds of solar material and magnetic fields that erupt from the Sun at
incredible speeds.

One of the flares imaged by SDO on Sept. 6 was classified as
X9.3 – clocking in at the most powerful flare of the current solar cycle. The
current cycle began in December 2008 and is now decreasing in intensity,
heading toward solar minimum. During solar minimum, such eruptions on the Sun
are increasingly rare, but history has shown that they can nonetheless be
intense.

September: A trio of
tempests

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Three
distinct solar active regions
with towering arches rotated into SDO’s view
over a three-day period from Sept. 24-26. Charged particles spinning along the
ever-changing magnetic field lines above the active regions trace out the
magnetic field in extreme ultraviolet light, a type of light that is typically
invisible to our eyes, but is colorized here in gold. To give some sense of
scale, the largest arches are many times the size of Earth.

December: A curling
prominence

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SDO saw a small prominence arch up
and send streams of solar material curling back into the Sun over a 30-hour
period on Dec. 13-14. Prominences are relatively cool strands of solar material
tethered above the Sun’s surface by magnetic fields.

 December: Solar
question mark

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An elongated coronal hole — the darker area near the center
of the Sun’s disk — looked
something like a question mark
when seen in extreme ultraviolet light by SDO
on Dec. 21-22. Coronal holes are magnetically open areas on the Sun that
allow high-speed solar wind to gush out into space. They appear as dark areas
when seen in certain wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light.

For all the latest on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, visit nasa.gov/sdo.
Keep up with the latest on the Sun on Twitter @NASASun or at facebook.com/NASASunScience.


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A Total Lunar Eclipse is Coming: 10 Things to …

If you were captivated by August’s total solar eclipse, there’s another sky show to look forward to on Jan. 31: a total lunar eclipse!

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Below are 10 things to know about this astronomical event, including where to see it, why it turns the Moon into a deep red color and more…

1. First things first. What’s the difference between solar and lunar eclipses? We’ve got the quick and easy explanation in this video:

2. Location, location, location. What you see will depend on where you are. The total lunar eclipse will favor the western U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, and British Columbia on Jan. 31. Australia and the Pacific Ocean are also well placed to see a major portion of the eclipse, if not all of it.

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3. Color play. So, why does the Moon turn red during a lunar eclipse? Here’s your answer:

4. Scientists, stand by. What science can be done during a lunar eclipse? Find out HERE

5. Show and tell. What would Earth look like from the Moon during a lunar eclipse? See for yourself with this artist’s concept HERE

6. Ask me anything. Mark your calendars to learn more about the Moon during our our Reddit AMA happening Monday, Jan. 29, from 3-4 pm EST/12-1 pm PST.

7. Social cues. Make sure to follow @NASAMoon and @LRO_NASA for all of the latest Moon news leading up to the eclipse and beyond.

8. Watch year-round. Can’t get enough of observing the Moon? Make a DIY Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator that will keep all of the dates and times for the year’s moon phases right at your fingertips HERE.

Then, jot down notes and record your own illustrations of the Moon with a Moon observation journal, available to download and print from moon.nasa.gov.

9. Lesson learned. For educators, pique your students’ curiosities about the lunar eclipse with this Teachable Moment HERE.

10. Coming attraction. There will be one more lunar eclipse this year on July 27, 2018. But you might need your passport—it will only be visible from central Africa and central Asia. The next lunar eclipse that can be seen all over the U.S. will be on Jan. 21, 2019. It won’t be a blue moon, but it will be a supermoon.

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Get Ready to Watch Us Go for GOLD

The boundary where Earth’s atmosphere gives way to outer space is a complex place: Atmospheric waves driven by weather on Earth compete with electric and magnetic fields that push charged particles, all while our signals and satellites whiz by.

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On Jan. 25, we’re launching the GOLD instrument (short for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk) to get an exciting new birds-eye view of this region, Earth’s interface to space.

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High above the ozone layer, the Sun’s intense radiation cooks some of the particles in the upper atmosphere into an electrically charged soup, where negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions flow freely. This is the ionosphere. The ionosphere is co-mingled with the highest reaches of our planet’s neutral upper atmosphere, called the thermosphere.

Spanning from just a few dozen to several hundred miles above Earth’s surface, the ionosphere is increasingly part of the human domain. Not only do our satellites, including the International Space Station, fly through this region, but so do the signals that are part of our communications and navigation systems, including GPS. Changes in this region can interfere with satellites and signals alike.  

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Conditions in the upper atmosphere are difficult to predict, though. Intense weather, like hurricanes, can cause atmospheric waves to propagate all the way up to this region, creating winds that change its very makeup.

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Because it’s made up of electrically charged particles, the upper atmosphere also responds to space weather. Space weather – which is usually driven by activity on the Sun – often results in electric and magnetic fields that push and pull on the ionosphere’s charged particles, changing the region’s makeup. On top of that, space weather can also mean incoming showers of high-energy particles that can affect satellites or endanger astronauts, and, in extreme cases, even cause power outages on Earth.

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That’s where GOLD comes in. GOLD takes advantage of its host satellite’s geostationary orbit over the Western Hemisphere to maintain a constant view of the upper atmosphere, day and night. By scanning across, GOLD builds up a complete picture of Earth’s disk every half hour.

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GOLD is an imaging spectrograph, a type of instrument that breaks light down into its component wavelengths. Studying light in this way lets scientists track the movement and temperatures of different chemical species and build up a picture of how the upper atmosphere changes over time. Capturing these measurements several times a day means that, for the first time, scientists will be able to record the short-term changes in the region – our first look at its day-to-day ‘weather.’

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GOLD is our first-ever mission to fly as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite. A hosted payload flies aboard an otherwise unrelated satellite, hitching a ride to space. GOLD studies the upper atmosphere, while its host satellite supports commercial communications.

Later this year, we’re launching another mission to study the ionosphere: ICON, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer. Like GOLD, ICON studies Earth’s interface to space, but with a few important distinctions. ICON employs a suite of different instruments to study the ionosphere both remotely and in situ. The direct in situ measurements are possible because ICON flies in low-Earth orbit, giving us a detailed view to complement GOLD’s global perspective of the regions that both missions study.  

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How to watch the launch on Jan. 25

Arianespace, a commerical aerospace company, is launching GOLD’s host commercial communications satellite, SES-14, for SES from Kourou, French Guiana.

Watch liftoff live on NASA Television nasa.gov/live
Launch Coverage starts at 5 p.m. EST 
(2 p.m. PST, 7 p.m. Kourou local time)

We’ll be streaming the launch live on NASA TV! You can also follow along on Twitter (@NASA and @NASASun), Facebook (NASA and NASA Sun Science), Instagram, and on our Snapchat (NASA). 

Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space: http://nasa.tumblr.com.