NASA mission will explore key zone between Earth, space

A new NASA mission launches this month to explore the zone between Earth’s atmosphere and the lowest reaches of space, where key communications satellites orbit amid bright bands of color known as airglow.

Dubbed the GOLD mission — for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk — it will be the first NASA science mission to fly an instrument on a commercial communications satellite when it launches January 25 from French Guiana, said the agency, which is expected to provide more details Thursday afternoon.

The near-space environment is important because it’s home to technology that is key to human communication, such as satellites that provide information for GPS systems and radio signals that help guide ships and airplanes.

It’s also where astronauts live on the International Space Station.

The mission will examine the response of the upper atmosphere to forcing from the sun, the magnetosphere and the lower atmosphere.

“GOLD will seek to understand what drives change in this region where terrestrial weather in the lower atmosphere interacts with the tumult of solar activity from above and Earth’s magnetic field,” NASA said in a statement. “Resulting data will improve forecasting models of space weather events that can impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space.”

Any research gained by this mission, led by the University of Central Florida, will help protect assets in the near-space zone, which extends several hundred miles from Earth’s surface, NASA said.

Robot mission finalists announced

NASA also recently announced two finalist concepts for a robotic mission that will launch in the 2020s as part of the New Frontiers Program.

One, CAESAR, will return a sample from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the comet that was explored by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft. Another, Dragonfly, will use a drone-like rotorcraft to explore sites on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

There has been significant interest in that ocean world’s chemistry and possible habitability, given that ocean worlds in our solar system may be suitable for some forms of life. One of these missions will be chosen in spring 2019.