Interface to Space

The ionosphere is layer of the upper atmosphere (60-1000 km up) where the neutral atoms and molecules of the lower atmosphere transition to the plasma of space.

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Ionosphere Science

Model visualizations illustrating our current understanding of the ionosphere
  • Exploring the Ionosphere: The Dayside Ionosphere
    2016.10.27
    The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field. This ion density decreases at night as the ions recombine with free electrons.
  • Exploring Earth's Ionosphere: Limb view with approach
    2017.01.13
    This visualization presents several 'reference models' for studying Earth's ionosphere. It opens with a full-disk view of Earth, then zooms-in to a close-up view of Earth's limb and ionospheric data-driven models, over a fixed geographic location - off the Atlantic coast of South America.
  • Exploring Earth's Ionosphere: Limb view
    2017.01.13
    This visualization presents several 'Reference models' for studying Earth's ionosphere. It presents a close-up view of Earth's limb and ionospheric data-driven models, over a fixed geographic location - off the Atlantic coast of South America.
  • The Equatorial Fountain
    2018.01.31
    This is a visualization of the Equatorial Fountain process in the ionosphere, whereby ions are driven away from the equator forming ion density enhancements above and below the equator. This visualization is depicted near 50 degrees west longitude, where the magnetic equator crosses the geographic equator. Magnetic field lines near Earth are represented by the gold lines.
  • Terrestrial Atmosphere ITM (Ionosphere, Thermosphere, Mesosphere) Processes
    2018.05.03
    This graphic presents an overview of the physical processes that have been identified in Earth's upper atmosphere.

GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk)

Visualizations featuring GOLD (and sometimes ICON)
  • Exploring the Ionosphere: The View from GOLD
    2016.10.27
    A view of Earth from the point-of-view of the GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk) instrument in geostationary orbit. This mission will conduct measurements of ionospheric composition to better understand the connection between space weather and its terrestrial impacts. ICON (Ionospheric Connections Explorer) orbits much closer to Earth. The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field. This ion density decreases at night as the ions recombine with free electrons. At the limb of Earth, we present a cross-sectional profile of the density enhancement.
  • GOLD: Instrument Scanning Coverage
    2018.01.19
    A basic view of the orbit for GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk). This mission will conduct measurements of ionospheric composition and ionization better understand the connection between space weather and its terrestrial impacts. In this visualization, we present GOLD in geostationary orbit around Earth. The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field. In the latter half of the visualization, the viewing fields of the GOLD instrument are displayed. GOLD has an imaging spectrometer (green) that periodically scans the disk of Earth with additional higher-resolution scans of the dayside limb.
  • ICON and GOLD: Instrument Scanning Coverage
    2016.12.14
    A basic view of the orbits for ICON (Ionospheric Connections Explorer) and GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk). These missions will conduct measurements of ionospheric composition, ionization, and winds to better understand the connection between space weather and its terrestrial impacts. In this visualization, we present GOLD (in geostationary orbit around Earth) and ICON (in low Earth orbit). The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field. In the latter half of the visualization, the viewing fields of the various instruments are displayed. ICON has an EUV (Extreme Ultraviolet) and FUV (Far Ultraviolet) cameras (violet colored frustrums directed from spacecraft) pointing perpendicular to the orbit direction for detecting ionospheric emissions. Two Doppler interferometer cameras (blue) are directed at 45 degrees from this camera to detect ionospheric wind velocities. GOLD has an imaging spectrometer (green) that periodically scans the disk of Earth with additional higher-resolution scans of the dayside limb.
  • ICON and GOLD: Exploring the Interface to Space
    2016.10.27
    A basic view of the orbits for ICON (Ionospheric Connections Explorer) and GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk). These missions will conduct measurements of ionospheric composition, ionization, and winds to better understand the connection between space weather and its terrestrial impacts. In this visualization, we present GOLD (in geostationary orbit around Earth) and ICON (in low Earth orbit). The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field.
  • GOLD in Geostationary Orbit
    2018.01.04
    The GOLD instrument will be riding as a passenger instrument onboard a commercial communications satellite positioned in geostationary orbit. GOLD will scan the disk and limb of Earth with an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph to measure the response of Earth's ionosphere to the various forcings in the Sun-Earth system.

ICON (Ionospheric CONnection Explorer)

Visualizations featuring ICON (and sometimes GOLD)
  • ICON Scans the Ionosphere
    2017.10.31
    The ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer) satellite orbits Earth at an altitude of 575 kilometers. In this visualization, we show the ICON spacecraft with the fields-of-view of four instruments for measuring the properties of the ionosphere.
  • ICON and GOLD: Instrument Scanning Coverage
    2016.12.14
    A basic view of the orbits for ICON (Ionospheric Connections Explorer) and GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk). These missions will conduct measurements of ionospheric composition, ionization, and winds to better understand the connection between space weather and its terrestrial impacts. In this visualization, we present GOLD (in geostationary orbit around Earth) and ICON (in low Earth orbit). The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field. In the latter half of the visualization, the viewing fields of the various instruments are displayed. ICON has an EUV (Extreme Ultraviolet) and FUV (Far Ultraviolet) cameras (violet colored frustrums directed from spacecraft) pointing perpendicular to the orbit direction for detecting ionospheric emissions. Two Doppler interferometer cameras (blue) are directed at 45 degrees from this camera to detect ionospheric wind velocities. GOLD has an imaging spectrometer (green) that periodically scans the disk of Earth with additional higher-resolution scans of the dayside limb.
  • ICON and GOLD: Exploring the Interface to Space
    2016.10.27
    A basic view of the orbits for ICON (Ionospheric Connections Explorer) and GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk). These missions will conduct measurements of ionospheric composition, ionization, and winds to better understand the connection between space weather and its terrestrial impacts. In this visualization, we present GOLD (in geostationary orbit around Earth) and ICON (in low Earth orbit). The colors over Earth represent model data from the IRI (International Reference Ionosphere) model of the density of the singly-ionized oxygen atom at an altitude of 350 kilometers. Red represents high density. The ion density is enhanced above and below the geomagnetic equator (not perfectly aligned with the geographic equator) on the dayside due to the ionizing effects of solar ultraviolet radiation combined with the effects of high-altitude winds and the geomagnetic field.
  • ICON Beauty Pass
    2017.04.03
    The Ionospheric Connection Explorer will study the frontier of space: the dynamic zone high in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above. In this region, the tenuous gases are anything but quiet, as a mix of neutral and charged particles travel through in giant winds. These winds can change on a wide variety of time scales -- due to Earth's seasons, the day's heating and cooling, and incoming bursts of radiation from the sun. This region of space and its changes have practical repercussions, given our ever-increasing reliance on technology -- this is the area through which radio communications and GPS signals travel. Variations there can result in distortions or even complete disruption of signals. In order to understand this complicated region of near-Earth space, called the ionosphere, NASA has developed the ICON mission. To understand what drives variability in the ionosphere requires a careful look at a complicated system that is driven by both terrestrial and space weather. ICON will help determine the physics of our space environment and pave the way for mitigating its effects on our technology, communications systems and society.

Older Ionospheric Studies

Visualizations related to older missions studying the ionosphere.
  • Ionosphere and CINDI
    2008.12.15
    The Coupled Ion Dynamics Investigation (CINDI) is a joint NASA/Air Force funded Ionospheric plasma sensor. This animation shows how the ionosphere changes between Daytime and nighttime.
  • 4D Ionosphere
    2008.04.30
    NASA-funded researchers have unveiled a new '4D' live model of Earth's ionosphere at the Space Weather Workshop, Boulder, CO. Without leaving home, anyone can fly through the dynamic layer of ionized gases that encircles Earth at edge of space itself. All that's required is a connection to the Internet. Airline flight controllers can use this tool to plan long-distance flights over the poles, saving money and time for flyers.