NASA's GOLD mission continues despite launch anomaly

Sheri Evans
January 26, 2018

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.

The near-space environment is important because it's home to technology that is key to human communication, such as satellites that provide information for GPS systems and radio signals that help guide ships and airplanes. (It's headed to an orbit of 22,000 miles, or 35,400 kilometers, above Earth; for comparison, the International Space Station circles at about 250 miles, or 400 km above the surface.) From there, it will be able to track the temperature of almost a whole hemisphere's ionosphere and thermosphere, giving scientists invaluable data to build models of the complicated region near the top of Earth's atmosphere. The two commingle and influence one another constantly. From the heavens, enormous 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.

"The upper atmosphere is far more variable than previously imagined, but we don't understand the interactions between all the factors involved", said Richard Eastes, GOLD principal investigator at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder. For example, powerful weather events such as tsunamis and tornadoes can lead to shifts in wind patterns that translate to, and disrupt, the upper atmosphere. Elsayed Talaat, NASA's heliophysics chief scientist, explained that "being on hosted commercial satellites gives".

Roughly the size of a mini fridge, the 80-pound GOLD instrument is an imaging spectrograph, an instrument that breaks light down into its component wavelengths and measures their intensities. The better scientists can understand and model the region, the better they can monitor and predict the effects it will have on Earth and low Earth orbit. Its sensors field the full spectra of light.

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From these images, scientists can determine the temperature and relative amounts of different particles - such as atomic oxygen and molecular nitrogen - present in the neutral atmosphere, which is useful for determining how these neutral gases shape ionospheric conditions.

The commercial satellite has nothing to do with the NASA mission observing Earth's atmosphere, and was chosen to host GOLD in part due to the endeavours' shared orbital requirements. LASP built the instrument. "We anticipate GOLD will give us new, similar insight into the dynamics of the upper atmosphere and our planet's space environment". Thankfully, things turned out just fine: its payload communications satellites, the SES 14 and the Al Yah 3, have successfully made it to orbit and resumed communication with their operators. Different levels of the ionosphere absorb different levels of radiation, which is what causes the auroras people on Earth's surface sometimes see. But while GOLD flies in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the Western Hemisphere, ICON flies just 350 miles above Earth, where it can gather close-up images of this region.

GOLD's scientific mission is unprecedented, and so its strategy for deployment.

The outermost layer of the planet's atmosphere is called the ionosphere and it helps protect the Earth and everything on it from the energy coming from the sun, including the radiation.

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