On Thursday, NASA announced its GOLD mission — the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk mission — which is set to launch on January 25.
GOLD will study the zone where Earth’s atmosphere meets outer space, known as the ionosphere. The goal is to deepen its understanding of how both solar and terrestrial storms affect the ionosphere, a region of the upper atmosphere that is crucial for radio communications.
The ionosphere, where incoming cosmic and solar rays interact with the atmosphere to create charged particles, extends from about 60 (37 miles) to about 1,200 kilometres (746 miles) above the planet’s surface.
GOLD will monitor the ionosphere’s density and temperature from its orbit 35,000 kilometres (22,000 miles) high, using an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph. In the past, other satellites have given us glimpses of the ionosphere, but this is the first time that an instrument will keep track of the changes as time passes, as it will collect data every 30 minutes.
GOLD is the first NASA mission to be launched aboard a commercial communications satellite. GOLD will work alongside another mission launching this year: ICON — the Ionospheric Connection Explorer — which will travel directly through the ionosphere, studying its makeup, density and temperature.
“Tsunamis create waves in the air, and they move upwards, which could cause changes at the boundary between Earth and space,” said Sarah Jones, GOLD mission scientist. “GOLD is studying how to tease out effects of Sun above and Earth below.”
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. ICON can also directly measure particles and how they move.
This combined global and fine-scale view will provide scientists with unique perspectives and a more complete picture of “our interface to space.”