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NASA and 3 Major Universities Reveal Amazing Discoveries About Earth's Ionosphere

Dec 15, 2016 05:00 AM EST

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and three major universities -- the Catholic University of America in Washington, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of California, Berkeley -- have made amazing discoveries that will help better understand the nature and behavior of heat and energy in the ionosphere. 

According to Eureka Alert, the ionosphere is part of the Earth's atmosphere that responds to changes happening from both above and below the planet's surface. NASA and its partner universities presented their latest ionosphere discoveries at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 14 in San Francisco.

The ionosphere is the Earth's interface to space. It is where Earth's neutral atmosphere and terrestrial weather make way to the space environment that controls the rest of the universe. But apart from that, the ionosphere remains a confusing conundrum for most experts.

Talking about a natural phenomenon called the satellite drag, Delores Knipp, a space scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said, "Our basic understanding has been that geomagnetic storms put energy into the Earth system, which leads to swelling of the thermosphere, which can pull satellites down into lower orbits. "But that isn't always the case," she quickly added, Phys.Org writes.

An article published by NASA, stated that a new analysis by Knipp and her team classifies the types of storms that are likely to lead to this overcooling and rapid upper atmosphere collapse. By comparing over a decade of measurements from Department of Defense satellites and NASA's Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics, or TIMED, mission, the researchers were able to spot patterns in energy moving throughout the upper atmosphere.

While scientists are moving forward when it comes to learning more about various factors that trigger changes to the ionosphere, NASA believes there is still much more left unexplored. With that, the space agency has two missions plotted for 2017 launch: the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) and Global Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD).

Scott England, a space scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who works on both the ICON and GOLD missions, told NASA, "The ionosphere doesn't only react to energy input by solar storms. Terrestrial weather, like hurricanes and wind patterns, can shape the atmosphere and ionosphere, changing how they react to space weather."

"We will be using these two missions together to understand how dynamic weather systems are reflected in the upper atmosphere," he added.

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