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NASA Spacecraft To Study Little-Known Region Of Earth’s Atmosphere


Artist’s impression of ICON. NASA Goddard’s Conceptual Image Lab/B. Monroe

NASA is preparing to launch two spacecraft to better understand the little-known portion of Earth’s atmosphere this year. These two spacecrafts will monitor the way in which our ionosphere interacts with space.

The first of the two missions is called GOLD, namely the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, which has been launched on January 25 on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. And the second one called the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) will be launched later this year.

The project focuses on how the solar wind and other space weather interact with the ionosphere that is Earth’s upper atmosphere, and thermosphere, at an altitude of around 97 kilometers (60 miles). This region is constantly fluxing as it is pushed and pulled by conditions on Earth and in space.

As Sarah Jones, GOLD mission scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said,

there were great scientific modeling efforts linked with both of these missions and they already had models using the really good science, however if they could find more new measurements, they would better understand the physics in the models.

GOLD had been put into a geostationary orbit 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) above Earth’s surface, from where, it could be able to continuously watch Earth and its outer atmosphere. It would get a full view of the ionosphere and upper atmosphere every half an hour, that enable scientists giving large-scale measurements of the region.

Afterwards, later this year, when ICON is to be launched, scientists will have a more close-up view. ICON will be orbited at an altitude of 565 kilometers (350 miles), repeatedly passing through the field of view of GOLD, therefore the data from these two missions can overlap.

It’s hoped that the missions will be helpful to scientists in knowing more about how hurricanes and geomagnetic storms impact the upper atmosphere, apart from solar wind. Scientists are also very interested in knowing what effect El Niño has too, while tropical cyclones may also cause some changes.

GOLD will also monitor disruptions in the ionosphere at night, in the form of bubbles of charged gas that can interfere with radio communications as a result of geomagnetic storms. At the same time ICON will study how gases in the upper atmosphere interact.

As Doug Rowland, ICON mission scientist at NASA Goddard, said, people used to think only solar wind could have impact on  the ionosphere, and only the lower atmosphere was affected by terrestrial weather. Thanks to this mission, scientists were  going to find out how both Earth and space weather could shape our upper atmosphere.

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