4D ionosphere-webcast

Narration: Michael Starobin

NASA-funded researchers have released to the general public a new “4D” live model of Earth’s ionosphere. Without leaving home, anyone can fly through the dynamic layer of ionized gases encircling the Earth at the edge of space. All you need connection to the Internet. One interesting use, airlines can use this tool to plan long-distance flights over the poles saving money and time for flyers.

(W. Kent Tobiska, Space Environment Technologies, Inc.) "This tool is the very first time that there is an entire system that creates in real time and forecast the space environment."

The ionosphere is, in a sense, our planet’s “final frontier.” It' s the last wisp of Earth’s atmosphere. The edge of the physical planet before space. The realm of the ionosphere stretches from 50 to 500 miles above Earth’s surface. There the atmosphere thins to near-vacuum and is exposed to the fury of the sun. Solar ultraviolet radiation breaks apart molecules and atoms creating a globe-straddling haze of electrons and ions.

Ham radio operators know the ionosphere well. They use it to communicate over the horizon by bouncing their signals off of the ionosphere—or communicate not at all when a solar flare blasts the ionosphere with X-rays and triggers a radio blackout. The ionosphere also has a big impact on GPS reception. Before a GPS signal reaches the ground, it must first pass through ionospheric gases that bend, reflect and attenuate radio waves. Solar and geomagnetic storms that unsettle the ionosphere can cause position errors as large as 100 meters. Imagine a pilot flying on instruments descending toward a landing strip only to discover it' s a football field to the right.

Maps of the ionosphere use color to describe its structure. Bright red shows highly dense areas of the ionosphere, where radio communications run into trouble. Blue shows low density areas, radio signals pass easily here.

But, The best way to appreciate the 4D ionosphere is to try it. Using the intuitive Google Earth interface, users can fly above, around and through these regions getting a true 3D view of the situation.

Make that 4D.

(W. Kent Tobiska, Space Environment Technologies, Inc.) "The fourth dimension is time. This is a real-time system updated every 10 minutes."