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NASA hitches ride on commercial satellite for UCF-led atmosphere study

NASA hitches ride on commercial satellite for UCF-led atmosphere study

NASA's Global-Scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) instrument was launched into orbit earlier today atop an Ariane 5 rocket, with a mission to shed light on how the uppermost layers of Earth's atmosphere can be affected by powerful space and Earth-based weather events.

It's the first time NASA has hitched a ride on a commercial satellite for one of its science missions. The cold and frigid environment of space surrounding our planet is not completely empty; it is filled with fast-moving charged particles that have been emitted from the Sun. The ionosphere and thermosphere commingle and constantly influence each other.

"This boundary region is increasingly more important to us because our infrastructure has grown out into space", Richard Eastes, GOLD principal investigator at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday. "That's where GOLD comes in: For the first time, the mission gives us the big picture of how different drivers meet and influence each other".

This tenuous region of the atmosphere has been known to undergo swift and significant changes in less than an hour.

Such influences are not only hard to predict, but dramatic changes can also occur in as little as an hour. From the heavens, huge solar storms can send vast clouds of energized particles and magnetic fields crashing into the atmosphere where it wreaks havock with the Earth/space interface. This combination of factors makes it hard to predict changes in the ionosphere - and these changes can have a big impact. But there was an unforeseen problem during launch, and NASA abruptly lost contact with the rocket that's carrying GOLD for several hours before they finally tracked it down. Low-Earth orbiting satellites - including the International Space Station - fly through the ionosphere.

This makes it hard to predict changes in the ionosphere, which includes low-earth orbiting satellites and communications signals, including radio waves and signals that make GPS systems work.

GOLD seeks to understand what drives change in this critical region.

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The mission is also studying a relatively new area of scientific research.

"The first meteorological satellites revolutionized our understanding of - and ability to predict - terrestrial weather", Elsayed Talaat, heliophysics chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "It gives us, NASA, a new cost effective strategy for conducting science".

The instrument weighs 80 pounds, has an imaging spectrograph that measures light wavelength intensity. Its sensors field the full spectra of light.

The instrument will be in geostationary orbit over the Western Hemisphere of Earth where it will make observations about the temperature and composition the ionosphere if the launch goes according to plan. LASP built the instrument. Different levels of the ionosphere absorb different levels of radiation, which is what causes the auroras people on Earth's surface sometimes see.

Also launching this year is the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, which will study the ionosphere and neutral upper atmosphere.

GOLD will capture the global perspective from 22,000 miles above Earth's surface, while ICON will capture a closer view from within the upper atmosphere itself, 350 miles above Earth. The mission will be able to see how exactly it affects our day-to-day life.

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