In a Dec. 10 press event at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, three scientists presented new images of the ionosphere, the dynamic region where Earth’s atmosphere meets space. Home to astronauts and everyday technology like radio and GPS, the ionosphere constantly responds to changes from space above and Earth below.
The collection of images presented include the first images from NASA’s ICON, new science results from NASA’s GOLD, and observations of a fleeting, never-before-studied aurora. Together, they bring color to invisible processes that have widespread implications for the part of space that is closest to home.
Earth’s ionosphere stretches from 50 to 400 miles above the ground and overlaps the top of the atmosphere and the very beginning of space. Radiation from the Sun cooks a small portion of gases in the upper atmosphere until they lose an electron or two. The result: a sea of electrically charged particles intermingled with the neutral upper atmosphere.
Besides energy streaming in from the Sun and near-Earth space, the ionosphere also responds to weather patterns that ripple up from the lower atmosphere below. These changes — which can impact astronauts and key communications systems — are complex and unpredictable. A range of specialized instruments is key to studying and understanding them.