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NASA's GOLD instrument hitches ride with commercial satellite

By Brooks Hays and Danielle Haynes

Jan. 25 (UPI) -- NASA's GOLD mission successfully launched aboard Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket, the space agency announced Thursday.

The rocket, which carried a SES-13 communications satellite into orbit, launched from Kourou, French Guiana, at 5:20 p.m.

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The launch was broadcast live online by NASA TV.

The Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk mission is part of the space agency's effort to better understand the thin, intermediate layers that form the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space.

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GOLD is an image spectrometer. Its sensors field the full spectra of light. By measuring the different levels of every wavelength, scientists can more accurately document the temperature and compositional variability found in the boundary layer.

The boundary's behavior -- influenced by a complex mix of influences, including space weather from above and terrestrial weather from below -- can affect space satellites and the GPS and communication systems they provide.

"This boundary region is increasingly more important to us because our infrastructure has grown out into space," Richard Eastes, GOLD principal investigator at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday.

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GOLD's scientific mission is unprecedented, and so its strategy for deployment. The instrument is NASA's first scientific mission to be hosted by a commercial satellite.

"This is a new paradigm that other science missions could and are following," said Elsayed Talaat, heliophysics chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It gives us, NASA, a new cost effective strategy for conducting science."

NASA worked out an arrangement with satellite communications company SES to install their instrument on SES-13. The satellite's maker, Airbus, helped integrate GOLD, ensuring there was the proper space and power supply.

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NASA said it will continue to launch its own scientific missions, but will also look for similar convenient, cost-saving arrangements in the future.

Relying on a commercial entity to launch your instrument does have drawbacks. NASA scientists will have to wait for SES to conclude their systems checks and ensure everything is up and running properly before they begin conducting science. The first observations from GOLD aren't expected until at least September.

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