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NASA’s GOLD Unveils Strange Ionosphere Patterns

american astronaut in space
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A weird discovery made by the GOLD mission of NASA has detected X- and C-shaped structures within our ionosphere and is leaving scientists scratching their heads. This challenges previous understandings of the ionosphere, a crucial electrified gas layer that helps facilitate long-distance radio communication.

The ionosphere is perhaps the most dynamic region above Earth, some 37 miles to 620 miles high, and is driven by solar radiation. During the day, the sun’s radiation ionizes the atmospheric molecules to create a dense plasma that enables radio signals to travel through. At night, the density of the ionosphere plummets, sometimes forming low-density bubbles that can bend or scatter radio and GPS signals, setting them off course. These systems have traditionally laid their problems at the door of solar storms and volcanic eruptions, which could merge plasma crests into X shapes.

The recent observations by GOLD, however, have called for a reassessment in this idea. Launched in October 2018, the satellite observed X-shaped structures in the ionosphere even when there were no geomagnetic disturbances. “Earlier reports of merging were only during geomagnetically disturbed conditions,” noted Fazlul Laskar, a research scientist at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, LASP. This is an unexpected result that supports the possible effects of lower atmospheric events in the ionosphere.

Besides the X-shaped structures, GOLD also imaged C-shaped and reverse-C-shaped plasma bubbles that were surprisingly much closer—for instance, about 400 miles apart. The closeness of these structures suggests there are fast and strong gradients of the wind over very short distances. Deepak Karan, another LASP research scientist, underlined how important it is to understand these phenomena. “If a vortex or a very strong shear in the plasma has happened, this will completely distort the plasma over that region. Signals will be lost completely with a strong disturbance like this.”

The GOLD mission, the first NASA science mission to fly as a hosted payload on an operational commercial satellite is designed to explore the interface between Earth’s upper atmosphere and outer space. Using ultraviolet imaging spectrographs allows GOLD to provide unprecedented details on the densities and temperatures of the ionosphere and thermosphere. Together these new insights are critical for understanding space weather and how it interacts not only with satellite communications but also with terrestrial weather.

It’s according to these observations that Jeffrey Klenzing, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, comments on the ineffective complexity. “The fact that we have very different shapes of bubbles this close together tells us that the dynamics of the atmosphere is more complex than we expected.” The complexity only goes to prove further that more experiments will be required to tease out the secrets of the ionosphere and its interactions with terrestrial and space weather.

The processes are very important to be known for mitigating communication system disruptions and learning more about dynamism in Earth’s atmosphere. With scientists poring over GOLD’s data, the hope is to get to the bottom of what might be driving these alphabet-shaped structures.

More for you:

  • NASA spots unexpected X-shaped structures in Earth’s upper atmosphere – and scientists are struggling to explain them
  • NASA’s GOLD Mission Spots X and C-shaped Structures In Earth’s Ionosphere, Know Significance
  • NASA scientists saw strange structures light up above the Earth’s atmosphere in the shape of alphabets.

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