Atmosphere-monitoring mission extended

An artist's conception shows the TIMED spacecraft studying Earth's atmosphere.
An artist's conception shows the TIMED spacecraft studying Earth's atmosphere.NASA
/ Source: The Associated Press

NASA has extended the mission of a satellite probing the least-studied region of Earth's atmosphere through 2010.

The four-year extension, announced Thursday, allows the $195 million TIMED spacecraft to further study how the sun influences the middle and upper atmosphere. That could help scientists better understand how the region affects satellite tracking and communication systems on Earth.

"TIMED's extended mission will bring insights into atmospheric evolution and perhaps the fate of the Earth's atmosphere," said Sam Yee, a project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the spacecraft.

TIMED — short for Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics — focuses on a little-explored region of the atmosphere 40 miles to 110 miles (65 to 175 kilometers) above Earth's surface. The area is too high for airplanes and balloons to fly and too low for other satellites to study.

Launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2001, TIMED's mission was extended once before. The new extension will ensure that the satellite operates through this decade.

NASA Headquarters couldn't immediately say how much the extended mission would cost.

The project is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.