NASA's First Commercial Satellite Mission Will Finally Reveal the Secrets of Space Weather
With the current administration's latest draft of budget cuts, the future of NASA's involvement in programs like the International Space Station remains uncertain.
Now, just as terrestrial organizations look to bolster their commercial relationships in tough financial times, the space agency has launched as a hosted payload on a commercial satellite for the first time ever.
When the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD mission, reaches its orbit of 22,000 miles above the Western Hemisphere in summer 2018, it will provide new data on the are where Earth's upper atmosphere meets the vacuum of space. And don't worry, they aren't hocking Trump Steaks in order to fund it.
GOLD launched last Thursday on an Ariane-5 rocket from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, and made contact with the commercial SES-14 satellite following a small launch anomaly with the rocket. The 80-pound instrument is an imaging spectrograph, breaking light down into its component wavelengths and measuring the intensities of those wavelengths, specifically ultraviolet light. This allows GOLD to create full-disk ultraviolet images of Earth from its vantage point above the Western Hemisphere.
"GOLD will investigate the dynamic intermingling of space and Earth's uppermost atmosphere and seek to understand what drives change in this critical region," NASA said in a statement. "Resulting data will improve forecasting models of the space weather events that can impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space. GOLD will be at the forefront of exploring and understanding near-Earth space, which is home to astronauts, radio signals used to guide airplanes and ships, and satellites that provide our communications and GPS systems. The more we understand about this region, the more we can protect our assets in space."
The lowest reaches of space are fascinating to researchers because they respond to both space weather above, and the Earth's lower atmosphere below—an overlapping thermosphere and the ionosphere. While it's technically the area of space closest to home, it has historically proven to be the most difficult area to observe. GOLD plans to collect observations with a 30-minute cadence, which NASA says is much higher than any mission that has come before. This means that GOLD will be the first mission to study the weather in our upper atmosphere on a day-to-day basis and not just long-term climate patterns.
"The first meteorological satellites revolutionized our understanding of—and ability to predict—terrestrial weather," said Elsayed Talaat, heliophysics chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We anticipate GOLD will give us new, similar insight into the dynamics of the upper atmosphere and our planet's space environment."