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NASA Facts the TIMED Mission Exploring One of the Atmosphere's Last Frontiers

NASA Facts the TIMED Mission Exploring One of the Atmosphere's Last Frontiers

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Published by Bob Andrepont

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Feb 18, 2011
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NASA’s Thermosphere IonosphereMesosphere Energetics and Dynamics(TIMED) mission will study a mysterious regionin our atmosphere called the Mesosphere,Lower Thermosphere/Ionosphere, or MLTI.Located about 40–110 miles
(60–180kilometers) above the Earth, the MLTI is atthe edge of space where air pressure is athousand to a trillion times less than at sealevel. Atoms here have their electrons rippedaway by X-rays and ultraviolet (UV) light fromthe Sun, creating an electrified gas used byham radio operators as a mirror to bouncetheir transmissions around the world. Electriccurrents surge through this region, serving ashome to that blue-green fire in the sky knownas the aurora.This region also contains white veils ofnoctilucent clouds, so thin and so high they canonly be seen from the ground at twilight whenthe Earth’s shadow blocks sunlight from thelower atmosphere. Once considered to be calmand unchanging, ripples in these noctilucentclouds along with other measurements indicatethat this region is actually very turbulent andhighly variable. This new data has recentlystimulated scientific interest in the MLTI. Today,many scientists believe that such fluctuationsmay serve as early warning signs of globalclimate change.Until TIMED, the MLTI was one of thelast frontiers for atmospheric explorationbecause this region is too high for air-planes or balloons to explore, and too lowfor direct measurement by satellites. Al-though the air here is very thin, satellitestravelling at orbital speeds still encounterenough particles to burn up. Ground obser-vations can only study a small area locatedabove the observatory, and sub-orbitalrockets sent to investigate this region canonly study a limited area before they fall toEarth after a few minutes.TIMED will circumvent these problemsby orbiting above the MLTI. The spacecraft’sremote sensing instruments will work to-gether with a network of ground-based ob-servation sites gathering an unprecedentedset of comprehensive global measurementsof the MLTI region.During its two-year mission, TIMEDwill study the basic structure of the MLTIregion, its chemistry and the flow of energy toand from this layer of the atmosphere. Scien-tists will analyze how the MLTI affects, and ischanged by, the lower atmosphere, how itinfluences the space near Earth occupied bylow-Earth orbiting satellites, and how eventson the Sun affect the MLTI.
The TIMED Mission:Exploring One of the Atmosphere’s Last Frontiers
The TIMED mission is vital to research-ers for several reasons. Intense solar activitydumps energy into the MLTI, causing it toexpand and reach further out into space. As aresult, low-Earth orbiting satellites encountermore MLTI particles, which increases their dragand reduces their orbital velocity. Without areboost, this drag shortens the spacecraft’slifetime by causing it to decay as it re-enters theEarth’s atmosphere. Geomagnetic storms andsolar activity also can heat the atmosphereconsiderably at these altitudes, increasing dragon orbiting satellites. After a major magneticstorm in 1989, ground-based controllers had torelocate hundreds of satellites in space andrecord their new orbits. NASA’s Solar Maxi-mum spacecraft was destroyed when this stormknocked it to a lower orbit, causing it to burn upduring its reentry.The MLTI region also is a gatewaybetween Earth’s environment and spacewhere the Sun’s energy is first deposited intothe Earth’s environment. TIMED will focus onunderstanding the processes behind howenergy and energetic particles from the Sunchange the chemistry, dynamics and electri-cal properties of the upper atmosphere. WithTIMED, scientists will be able to developbetter predictive models of space weather’seffects on communications, satellite tracking,spacecraft lifetimes, degradation of space-craft materials, and on spacecraft reenteringthe Earth’s atmosphere.
The TIMED Spacecraft and ItsInstruments
The TIMED spacecraft weighs in at1,294 pounds (587 kilograms). In its stowedconfiguration for launch, TIMED measures8.9 feet (2.72 meters) high by 5.29 feet (1.61meters) wide. On orbit and after solar arraydeployment, the spacecraft grows to 38.5 feet(11.73 meters) wide.
Artist concept of the TIMED spacecraft 388 miles (625 kilometers) above the Earth collecting data about the MLTI region. (Illustration courtesy of JHU/APL) 
s science payload consists offour instruments -
Global Ultraviolet Imager (GUVI)
isa collaborative effort between The JohnsHopkins University Applied Physics Labo-ratory (APL) and The Aerospace Corp. ofEl Segundo, Calif. GUVI observes theglow of the MLTI region in UV light, provid-ing scientists with its chemical composi-tion and temperature range. It also mea-sures the energy input by solar UV lightand the aurora. Although invisible to thehuman eye, UV light is detectable usingspecial instruments like GUVI. The spec-trograph in GUVI breaks UV light into itscomponent
much like a prismseparates white light into a rainbow.When the MLTI is energized by solar UVlight or the aurora atoms and moleculesthat comprise the MLTI glow in specificUV colors, allowing scientists to determineits composition and temperature.The principal investigator for GUVI is AndrewChristensen of The Aerospace Corp.
Thepayload operations center (POC) is located atAPL in Laurel, Md.
Solar Extreme UltravioletExperiment (SEE)
, built by the Universityof Colorado, Boulder, observes solar UVirradiance, the primary energy depositedinto the MLTI region. SEE determineshow much this energy varies and how itaffects the atmosphere and changes itscomposition, and will establish an index ofsolar variability so scientists canunderstand the solar UV changes in theMLTI even after the mission ends.The principal investigator for SEE is ThomasWoods of the University of Colorado, Boulder,where the POC also is located.
TIMED Doppler Interferometer(TIDI)
, built by the University of Michigan,Ann Arbor,
measures winds and tempera-ture of the MLTI region. It determineswind speed and direction by examiningtiny changes in the color of light emittedfrom chemical constituents in the atmo-sphere. Similar to how the change in pitchfrom a passing ambulance
s siren helps todetermine its speed, particles blown bythe wind have the color of their emittedlight changed slightly, allowing scientiststo determine their speed and direction.The principal investigator for TIDI is TimothyKilleen of the National Center for Atmo-spheric Research in Boulder, Colo. The POCis located at the University of Michigan, AnnArbor.
Sounding of the Atmosphere usingBroadband Emission Radiometry(SABER)
is a multichannel infrared radi-ometer that measures a wide range ofinfrared light emitted by the atmosphere atdifferent altitudes. SABER explores theMLTI to determine its energy balance,atmospheric structure, chemistry anddynamics between atmospheric regions.SABER is a collaborative effort betweenHampton University (Va.), which leads thescience team; NASA Langley ResearchCenter, which has overall project manage-ment and mission implementation respon-sibility; Utah State University (Logan),which built the instrument; and GATS, Inc.(Newport News, Va), which developed thesoftware and manages the data.The principal investigator for SABER isJames Russell III of Hampton University. ThePOC for SABER is located at NASA LangleyResearch Center.
Launch Details
The TIMED spacecraft is scheduled to launchaboard a Boeing Delta II rocket from theWestern
Test Range at Vandenberg Air ForceBase, Calif. TIMED will be inserted into a

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