In the atmosphere

NASA launches two satellites to shine a light on space weather

Conditions on the edge of space can have a major effect on Earth.

NASA

NASA

Stretching from around 30 miles above the Earth’s surface to the very edge of space is the ionosphere, a region of the atmosphere filled with charged particles.

As the Sun beats down on the upper atmosphere, some particles are ionized, changing conditions in the ionosphere from day to night. It’s also affected by weather on Earth and in space, making the ionosphere extremely turbulent.

NASA/GSFC/ICON

imageBROKER/Reinhard Pantke/imageBROKER/Getty Images

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to see an aurora, you have the charged particles of the chaotic ionosphere to thank.

But the ionosphere can also wreak havoc on satellites. Charged gas, or plasma, can collect together into massive bubbles, which scatter radio and GPS signals.

NASA

That’s a big problem

... especially considering how many satellites orbit in or above the ionosphere. That includes NASA’s recently launched SWOT satellite and the International Space Station.

NASA

We don’t yet have a way to avoid disruptions caused by ionospheric particles, but a new NASA program could help us understand and predict them.

NASA

In November 2022, NASA sent two CubeSats to the ISS aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. Named SPORT and petitSAT, the duo were deployed on December 29 to begin studying how plasma bubbles form.

NASA

The Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT) will take measurements of the whole ionosphere, showing scientists the turbulent region’s normal state.

ARUTTHAPHON POOLSAWASD/Moment/Getty Images

NASA/W. Hrybyk

At the same time, the Plasma Enhancements in The Ionosphere-Thermosphere Satellite (petitSAT) will monitor density irregularities resulting from plasma bubbles.

NASA

Their combined observations should give scientists a better view of how and when plasma blobs appear. The insight could help avoid or at least predict future communications disruptions from these little-understood phenomena.