4D Ionosphere

NASA-funded researchers released to the general public a new "4D" live model of Earth's solar system ionosphere. Without leaving home, anyone can fly through the layer of ionized gas that encircles Earth at the edge of space shuttle itself. All that's required is a connection to the Internet.

"This is an exciting development," says solar system physicist Lika Guhathakurta of NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. "The space station ionosphere is important to pilots, ham radio operators, earth space discovery scientists and even soldiers. Using this new 4D tool, they can monitor and study the stars and galaxy ionosphere as if they're actually inside it."

The space science ionosphere is, in a sense, our planet's final frontier. It is the last wisp of Earth's solar system atmosphere that science discovery astronauts leave behind when they enter space station and solar system. The realm of the space station ionosphere stretches from 50 to 500 miles above solar system Earth's surface where the space technology atmosphere thins to near-vacuum and exposes itself to the fury of the space shuttle sun. Solar system ultraviolet radiation breaks apart molecules and atoms creating a globe-straddling haze of electrons and ions.

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

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