06/12/2018 / By David Williams
The National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) recently launched a new mission to gather information from the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. This was done with the help of commercial spaceflight company Arianespace, which used its very own SES-14 commercial communications satellite in order to carry the space agency’s new Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) instrument out into orbit.
They hit a snag not long after take-off, according to some reports, and the company lost communications with its Ariane 5 rocket. However, the “anomaly” didn’t cause any lasting damage, as the connection was promptly restored, the status of all equipment got checked, and it has since been confirmed that the satellites have made orbit.
But what exactly is the purpose of NASA’s new GOLD instrument? And what role will it play in the future for NASA’s various Earth-space experiments?
According to information posted on NASA’s official website, GOLD is meant to do one thing first and foremost – to investigate the relationship between Earth’s uppermost atmosphere and the area of space that’s nearest to it. Its launch is notable now for being the first NASA science mission to fly an instrument with the use of a commercially hosted payload, but soon, it should be able to report back to NASA with data and information that could be newsworthy in all sorts of other ways.
As of this time’s writing, GOLD should already be gathering data in the Earth’s outer corners – in the ionosphere, which is the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space containing charged particles, and the thermosphere, which is the upper reaches of the planet’s neutral atmosphere. Its mission is simply to find out how the ionosphere and the thermosphere interact with each other and what roles they play in relation to planetary weather, space weather, and the planet’s magnetic field.
According to Richard Eastes, GOLD’s principal investigator at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, GOLD should be able to offer much-needed insight into the goings-on throughout the location that it is tasked to investigate. “The upper atmosphere is far more variable than previously imagined, but we don’t understand the interactions between all the factors involved,” explained Eastes. “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.”
Elsayed Talaat, the heliophysics chief scientist at the NASA headquarters in Washington, agrees: “The first meteorological satellites revolutionized our understanding of – and ability to predict – terrestrial weather,” he said. “We anticipate GOLD will give us new, similar insight into the dynamics of the upper atmosphere and out planet’s space environment.”
In Eastes’s view, GOLD could prove to be a vital piece of equipment for NASA’s future research endeavors concerning the Earth’s atmosphere. He has even likened it to an infrared camera (IR cam) and said it can provide information in much the same way. “Just like an infrared camera allows you to see how temperatures change with different colors, GOLD images ultraviolet light to provide a map of the Earth that reveals how temperature and atmospheric composition change by location,” he said.
There sure are many interesting possibilities with the research that is going to be conducted thanks to information gathered by GOLD. But it’s only the latest addition to an entire fleet of NASA’s Heliophysics missions, which aim to study the vast interconnected system of items from the sun to the space surrounding the Earth, including other planets. You can follow GOLD’s progress online through the official NASA website.
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