Independent Review Board of GDC Architecture to Begin

On April 10, 2022, NASA chartered an Independent Review Board to review the overall architecture and technical concept for NASA’s Geospace Dynamics Constellation, or GDC – a mission to study how the giant magnetic bubble around Earth, the magnetosphere, interacts with Earth’s upper atmosphere.

NASA regularly uses such review boards to review strategic missions for robustness and to ensure maximum return on NASA’s investment.

GDC is a NASA Heliophysics mission that will observe the coupling between Earth’s magnetosphere and the ionosphere-thermosphere system – and how that coupled system responds to energy streaming in from the Sun and the rest of space. GDC will be the first mission to study these effects on a global scale by using a constellation of spacecraft that will allow for concurrent, multi-point observations.

The Independent Review Board is tasked with providing an assessment and recommendations that maximize the probability of mission success – scientifically and technically – as well as how best to enhance the larger NASA heliophysics portfolio. The board comprises experts in relevant science, technical, and programmatic fields and is expected to produce a final report and conclude its work around August 2022. Orlando Figueroa, retired deputy center director for science and technology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Maura E. Hagan, professor emeritus of physics at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, were selected as co-chairs to lead the board and together offer decades of experience in ionosphere-thermosphere system research and NASA program leadership.

Geospace Dynamics Constellation: Exploring the Heart of Space Weather

animated image of the Geospace Dynamics Constellation orbiting EARTH
Concept animation of Geospace Dynamics Constellation orbiting Earth through the upper atmosphere. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/ULA/Pond5/Artbeats

The Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission – or GDC – is a team of satellites that will study Earth’s upper atmosphere and provide the first direct global measurements of our planet’s dynamic and complex interface with the space environment. This boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space is called the ionosphere-thermosphere (I-T) system.

This mission will change our understanding of the structure and behavior of the I-T, specifically how it responds to energy input from the Sun and space environment above and the lower atmosphere below, and how it internally redistributes this energy on a global basis. The processes and dynamics active in this region are involved in many of the space weather effects we experience on Earth, such as disrupted communications and navigation signals, satellite orbit disruptions, and certain triggered power outages.

Using an array of sensors on each spacecraft, working together to gather comprehensive observations, GDC will explore the fundamental physics of this region, which is driven on all scales from minutes to years by a variety of external factors. The level of detail and resolution provided by this mission will give us an unprecedented understanding of the space environment surrounding our home planet and will grant us new insights into the fundamental dynamics of planetary atmospheres within the solar system and beyond.

GDC will also provide the first opportunity to study I-T physics on a range of scales from small (similar to thunderstorms), medium (similar to hurricanes), to global scales (similar to jet streams, polar vortices, etc.). The new and comprehensive measurements GDC will provide are critically needed to increase our understanding of the upper atmosphere and to understand this region as both a collection of distinct parts and a system that acts and reacts as a whole.  Ultimately, GDC’s science investigation will lead to improvements in our ability to specify and forecast space weather effects on a global basis.

The GDC mission is currently in formulation and NASA has started assembling the GDC science team with the selection of three GDC Interdisciplinary Scientists: Dr. Rebecca Bishop (The Aerospace Corporation), Professor Yue Deng (University of Texas, Arlington), and Professor Jeffrey Thayer (University of Colorado, Boulder). Each leads teams that will bring their own unique capabilities and contributions to the mission. In early 2022, NASA will select the rest of the science team and the instruments that will fly on the GDC spacecraft.

By Denise Hill
NASA Headquarters, Washington