NASA looks to strike GOLD with their newest mission

By Akshay Asija

The Explorers program, NASA’s oldest space exploration program, has contributed a great deal to the study of the outer space. In the six decades of its existence, the American space agency has launched more than 90 space missions as a part of the Explorers program, including the country’s first artificial satellite.

The GOLD mission

The most recent mission under the Explorers program is the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD). This two-year mission, which launched on Thursday, January 25, was announced in April 2013. The purpose of GOLD is to aid our study of ‘space weather’, which is a term used to describe the interactions between high-energy particles in the upper regions of the earth’s atmosphere.

What sets GOLD apart from all other space missions is that it did not require the launch of a new satellite for making the observations. Instead, GOLD uses an instrument to produce ultraviolet spectrographs which is hosted in SES-14, a commercial geostationary satellite constructed and managed by an operator from Luxembourg. SES-14 was launched into orbit by Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket, which lifted off from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana at 5.20 PM EST on January 25.

While SES-14 was not damaged during its launch, Ariane 5 lost contact with its base station prior to the satellite’s deployment and went off course. As a result, the satellite was launched in an orbit lower than the one initially planned, which has led to some issues. Firstly, NASA lost contact with GOLD for a brief period after the satellite launch. Secondly, the employees of the agencies involved will now have to work on making the satellite correct its course, which will delay the mission.

How useful is GOLD?

GOLD will examine the ultraviolet radiation released in the upper atmosphere, and record the ionosphere’s temperature in detail. SES-14, once it reaches its proper orbit, will stay fixed with respect to the Earth’s surface at about 22,000 miles (35,400 km) above the planet. Scientists at NASA will use the GOLD instrument to inspect radiation from the Sun that causes the ionisation of particles in the ionosphere. They also plan to confirm their belief that the space weather in the ionosphere and the thermosphere is influenced by terrestrial weather and not just the Sun.

A successful attempt at modelling the upper reaches of the atmosphere will be a big win for the researchers and technology in general. This is because radio communication and GPS are based on the principle that the ionosphere reflects microwaves and radio waves originating from the Earth.

Until now, it has only been possible to study the behaviour of the ionosphere for a few hours at a time, but with GOLD, such observations can be taken throughout the day on an hourly basis. Hopefully, with the better models that GOLD will help scientists to create, it will be possible to improve radio and mobile phone communication!

Featured Image Source: Flickr