New NASA mission will explore key zone between Earth and space

The lowest reaches of space glow with bright bands of color called airglow. NASA's new GOLD mission will research this region.

Story highlights

  • The target area is home to communications satellites -- and colorful light bands
  • NASA also has named two finalists for future robotic missions far beyond Earth

(CNN)A 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, the agency said. More details about the mission were announced Thursday from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
    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.
      This illustration shows the GOLD mission.
      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. Learning more about the ionosphere, part of Earth's upper atmosphere where the sun's radiation collides with gas that breaks into electrons and ions, is key. This dynamic environment is always changing and could easily garble radio signals coming through our atmosphere. The mission will be able to see how exactly it affects our day-to-day life.
      "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.
        For years, scientists have been able to study Earth's upper atmosphere in detail, using ground-based observations as well as low-Earth-orbit missions. But they were missing the bigger picture.
        The GOLD mission, situated in geostationary orbit over the Western Hemisphere, will take a global scan of the ionosphere and upper atmosphere every half-hour, allowing scientists to get a complete look at the temperature and weather of that region, which they've never