NASA's Rediscovered IMAGE Satellite Had Been Studying Auroras

Saturday, 03 February 2018 - 11:28AM
Space
NASA
Saturday, 03 February 2018 - 11:28AM
NASA's Rediscovered IMAGE Satellite Had Been Studying Auroras
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NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio/Tom Bridgman
Last week, an amateur astronomer named Scott Tilley had been perusing the skies for satellite signals when he came across something unusual. 

It was a satellite signal, to be sure, but Tilley suspected it belonged to IMAGE, a long forgotten NASA satellite that went missing back in 2005, and the space agency just confirmed that he was absolutely right. And better yet, the satellite has still been functioning after all this time.

The fact that it's still operational is great news, because before the fateful day when it suddenly went off the grid and NASA couldn't reestablish contact, IMAGE was crucial for the study of auroras like the northern lights. Its job was to record data about charged particles in near-Earth space, namely our planet's surrounding magnetosphere. And it's many of these charged particle interactions that create the bright auroras in the night sky.

Heck, it's even in the name - IMAGE is short for "Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration."




For the five years that it was active, IMAGE had access to several fancy tools that it used to examine Earth's magnetosphere and its "inner bubble," the plasmasphere. By measuring charged particles and using ultraviolet and radio imaging, IMAGE confirmed several near-Earth phenomena that had been predicted but never actually seen by any spacecraft - for example, it picked up a plasmaspheric plume of backwards-flowing plasma particles that had only been theorized to exist.

In a press release, the NASA headquarters' director of planetary science Jim Green (who used to work with IMAGE frequently) reminisced about just how important IMAGE was back in the day:

Opening quote
"IMAGE was a discovery machine and a seminal mission that gave us a broader perspective on Earth's environment and its ever-changing magnetosphere. Much of my career as a magnetospheric physicist was with IMAGE, and the science was transformative."
Closing quote





It's still not entirely clear how IMAGE lost contact back in 2005, but the space agency suspects that some sort of high energy cosmic ray or radiation belt particle might have tripped the satellite's power source. NASA tried to reboot the satellite a couple times to see if they might find it again, but they were unsuccessful - or so they thought. At some point, IMAGE did reboot successfully, and is still functioning even if nobody knew until now.

Which means it's very likely the aurora research may continue in some form, which is good news for any fans of the aurora borealis.
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