CU-Boulder to receive $36 million from NASA for space weather mission

The University of Colorado Boulder will receive roughly $36 million from NASA to build and operate a space instrument for a mission led by the University of Central Florida that will study Earth’s upper atmosphere to learn more about the disruptive effects of space weather.

The mission, known as the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, involves imaging Earth’s upper atmosphere from a geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles above the planet. The mission is expected to have a direct impact on the understanding of space weather like geomagnetic storms that alter the temperature and composition of Earth’s atmosphere, which can disrupt communication and navigation satellites, affecting everything from automobile GPS and cell phone coverage to television programming.

The GOLD mission, which is being led by research scientist Richard Eastes of the University of Central Florida, will launch aboard a commercial communications satellite as a “hosted” payload.  Such payloads, which are secondary to the satellite’s main objective, represent the most cost-effective way to reach geostationary orbit, said CU-Boulder aerospace engineer Mark Lankton of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the GOLD project manager.

“LASP is extremely pleased to be working on this mission with Richard Eastes at the University of Central Florida, who we have been collaborating with for seven years,” said Lankton. “This mission is one of the first to involve a science instrument being launched on a communication satellite, which is a terrific idea and exactly the right way to run a quality mission on a smaller budget.”

The LASP instrument, known as an imaging spectrograph, weighs roughly 60 pounds and is about 2 feet long and about 1 foot tall and 1 foot wide – roughly the size of a microwave oven.  It will launch aboard a commercial satellite built by SES Government Solutions in McLean, Va. The LASP instrument will be gathering data on Earth’s upper atmosphere in the far ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“GOLD’s imaging represents a new paradigm for observing the boundary between Earth and space,” said Bill McClintock, the deputy principal investigator on the CU-Boulder spectrograph and a senior research scientist at LASP. “It will revolutionize our understanding of how the sun and the space environment affect our upper atmosphere.”

A geosynchronous orbit is an orbit that completes one revolution in the same amount of time it takes for the Earth to rotate once on its polar axis. “We will be able to view almost a complete hemisphere of the Earth, almost all the time, with this orbit,” said Lankton.

The mission scientists will be looking for the effects of space weather on the upper atmosphere -- the ionosphere and thermosphere located roughly 50 miles to 350 miles above Earth – caused by the sun and Earth’s lower atmosphere, said Lankton.  “The giant driver is the sun, including geomagnetic storms that can cause bright auroras and the disruption of satellite communications,” he said.

Lankton said the science team also will investigate the effects that atmospheric waves and tides from Earth’s lower atmosphere have on the thermosphere-ionosphere system. The mission will make use of other instruments gathering data on the sun, including LASP’s $42 million Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment flying on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Roughly 40 LASP researchers will be working on the GOLD mission when it is at full strength, including five to 10 students, split about evenly between undergraduates and graduates, said Lankton.  Other participants in the GOLD mission include the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, the University of California, Berkeley, Computational Physics Inc. of Springfield, Va., and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The GOLD mission is part of NASA’s new Heliospheric Explorer Program designed to provide space observations to study Earth’s ionosphere and thermosphere.  The mission is slated for launch in 2017. NASA Explorer missions of opportunity, such as GOLD, are capped at $55 million each.

Contact:
William McClintock, 303-492-8407
William.McClintock@colorado.edu
Mark Lankton, 303-492-7915
Mark.Lankton@lasp.colorado.edu
Jim Scott, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3114
Jim.Scott@colorado.edu

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