Near-space airglow

Nasa goes for Gold to explore nearest reaches of space

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa has announced details of its forthcoming Gold science mission to explore where Earth’s atmosphere meets space.

The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, aka Gold, is an ultraviolet (UV) imaging spectrograph instrument, launching on a commercial satellite to inspect from geostationary orbit - at an altitude of 22,236 miles (35785 km) - the dynamic intermingling of space and Earth’s uppermost atmosphere.

The mission is intended to explore the nearest reaches of space. Capturing never-before-seen images of Earth’s upper atmosphere, Gold will explore in unprecedented detail our closest space environment, home to astronauts, radio signals used to guide airplanes and ships, as well as satellites that provide communications and GPS systems to Earth.

The premise of the mission is that the more we know about the fundamental physics of this region of space, the more we can protect assets there.

Gathering observations from geostationary orbit above the Western Hemisphere, Gold will measure the temperature and composition of neutral gases in Earth’s thermosphere. This part of the atmosphere co-mingles with the ionosphere, which is made up of charged particles. Both the Sun and terrestrial weather can change the types, quantities and characteristics of the particles found here. Gold will help track those changes.

The lowest reaches of space glow with bright bands of colour called airglow, a phenomenon already observed from the International Space Station. The Gold mission will specifically observe airglow to research this dynamic region of space and how it interacts with the upper atmosphere.

Activity in this region is responsible for a variety of key space weather events. Gold scientists are particularly interested in the cause of dense, unpredictable bubbles of charged gas that appear over the equator and tropics, sometimes causing communication problems. As we discover more about the nature of the Sun-Earth interaction in this region, the mission could ultimately lead to ways to improve forecasts of such space weather and mitigate its effects, both impacting life on Earth as well as satellites and astronauts in space.

Gold is Nasa’s first science mission to fly as a hosted instrument aboard a commercial communications satellite and is scheduled to launch Thursday 25 January 2018 from French Guiana. Gold will fly on SES-14, built by Airbus for Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES. The mission is led by the University of Central Florida.

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