Several University of Central Florida professors and their colleagues in Colorado expect to see almost a decade of sweat and tears pay off Thursday, when one of NASA’s missions launches from Kourou, French Guiana.

The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, mission is the first time NASA will fly a hosted instrument aboard a commercial-communications satellite. GOLD will fly on SES-14, built by Airbus for Luxembourg-based satellite operator SES.

UCF leads the mission and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder built the instrument that will fly on the satellite, which will help unravel the mystery of one of the lower atmosphere’s least-understood regions. Richard Eastes is the mission’s principal investigator and William McClintock is the deputy investigator.

Because of the collaboration between experts at UCF, LASP and NASA’s heliophysics scientists, GOLD is the first mission that is expected to provide scientists with observations fast enough to monitor the details of regular, hour-by-hour changes in space weather—not just its overarching climate.

The mission will inspect the dynamic region where Earth’s uppermost atmosphere meets the space that surrounds the planet, called the ionosphere. This region responds both to terrestrial weather in the lower atmosphere and the tumult of space weather from above. Big events in the lower atmosphere, such as hurricanes or tsunamis, create waves that could travel all the way up to this interface of space, changing the wind patterns and causing disruptions. On the upper side of this region, flurries of energized particles and solar storms carry electric and magnetic fields and have the potential to cause dramatic changes to Earth’s space environment.

This combination of factors makes it difficult to predict changes in the ionosphere—and these changes can have a big impact. Communication signals, such as radio waves and signals that make our GPS systems work, travel through this region, and sudden changes can distort them or even cut them off completely. Understanding how the region fluctuates is also important for protecting satellites, astronauts and even the International Space Station, which all fly through the ionosphere.

GOLD seeks to understand what drives change in this critical region.

Once the satellite reaches proper orbit—in about six months—UCF computer science professor Hassan Foroosh will jump into action, integrating all algorithms for various data products collected, including the ultraviolet images provided by LASP’s two UV imaging channels aboard GOLD. Foroosh serves as the GOLD Science Data Center principal investigator, which means he will also manage, archive and disseminate mission data products.

(Researchers Jun Wang and Hassan Foroosh)(Researchers Jun Wang and Hassan Foroosh)

Electrical and computer engineering Professor W. Linwood Jones will provide the analysis necessary for accurate geolocation of the images observed, and colleague Jun Wang will help explore how to accelerate the speed of the big data analytics being collected.

The first meteorological satellites revolutionized the ability to track and ultimately predict terrestrial weather, and the science community anticipates a similar leap in the understanding of space weather once GOLD completes its mission.

The launch window opens at 5:20 p.m. Thursday. To view the launch, click here beginning at 5 p.m.