GOLD’s Top-Down View of Our Atmosphere

From its vantage point in geostationary orbit, NASA’s GOLD mission – short for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk – has given scientists a new view of dynamics in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Together, three research papers show different ways the upper atmosphere changes unexpectedly, even during relatively mild conditions that aren’t typically thought to trigger such events.

Extra electrons

GOLD studies both neutral particles and those that have electric charge – collectively called the ionosphere – which, unlike neutral particles, are guided by electric and magnetic fields. At night, the ionosphere typically features twin bands of dense charged particles. But GOLD’s data revealed previously unseen structures in the nighttime ionosphere’s electrons, described in research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics on Aug. 24, 2020.

Satellite data overlaid over an outline of Earth shows twin bands of emission near the equator at night.
Data from NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, mission reveals the twin bands of charged particles that persist near the equator at night. Credit: NASA/GOLD/NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

While comparing GOLD’s data to maps created with ground-based sensors, scientists spotted a third dense pocket of electrons, in addition to the typical two electron bands near the magnetic equator. Reviewing GOLD data from throughout the mission, they found that the peak appeared several times in October and November of multiple years, suggesting that it might be a seasonal feature.

Though scientists don’t know what exactly creates this extra pocket of dense electrons, it appeared during a period of relatively mild space weather conditions. This was a surprise to scientists, given that big, unpredictable changes in the ionosphere are usually tied to higher levels of space weather activity.

Nitrogen drops

GOLD also saw large drops in the upper atmosphere’s oxygen-to-nitrogen ratio – a measurement typically linked to the electron changes that can cause GPS and radio signal disturbances.

This event was notable to scientists not for what happened, but when: The dips that GOLD saw happened during a relatively calm period in terms of space weather, even though scientists have long associated these events with intense space weather storms. The research was published on Sept. 9, 2020, in Geophysical Research Letters.

During a geomagnetic storm – space weather conditions that disturb Earth’s magnetosphere on a global scale – gases in the upper atmosphere at high latitudes can become heated. As a result, nitrogen-rich air from lower altitudes begins to rise and flow towards the poles. This also creates a wind towards the equator that carries this nitrogen-rich air down towards lower latitudes. Higher nitrogen in the upper atmosphere is linked to drops in electron density in the ionosphere, changing its electrical properties and potentially interfering with signals passing through the region. GOLD observed this effect several times during relatively calm space weather conditions during the day – outside of the disturbed conditions when scientists would normally expect this to happen.

These changes during seemingly calm conditions may point to a space weather system that’s more complicated than previously thought, responding to mild space environment conditions in bigger ways.

“The situation is more complex – the ionosphere is more structured and dynamic than we could have seen before,” said Dr. Sarah Jones, mission scientist for GOLD at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Improving models

Indeed, GOLD’s observations of changing atmospheric composition are already informing scientists’ computer models of these processes. A paper published in Geophysical Research Letters on May 20, 2021, uses GOLD’s data as a reference to show how changes near the poles can influence the ionosphere’s conditions in the mid-latitudes, even during periods of calm space weather activity. GOLD’s broad, two-dimensional view was critical to the finding.

“When you look in two dimensions, a lot of things that look mysterious from one data point become very clear,” said Dr. Alan Burns, a researcher at the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado, who worked on the studies.

By Sarah Frazier
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.