Washington, May 1 : Scientists have developed a "4D" live model of Earth's ionosphere, which would be able to help airline flight controllers and ham radio operators.
Developed by NASA-funded researchers, this model would enable anyone to virtually fly through the dynamic layer of ionized gases that encircles Earth at the edge of space itself, just using an Internet connection.
Airline flight controllers can use this tool to plan long-distance business flights over the poles, saving money and time for flyers.
Using the 4D model, a flight controller could examine the ionosphere from the flyer's point of view and use that information to anticipate problems that could cause a flight to be delayed or diverted.
According to solar physicist Lika Guhathakurta of NASA headquarters in Washington, DC, "The ionosphere is important to pilots, ham radio operators, earth scientists and even soldiers. Using this new 4D tool, they can monitor and study the ionosphere as if they're actually inside it."
The realm of the ionosphere stretches from 50 to 500 miles above Earth's surface where the atmosphere thins to near-vacuum and exposes itself to the fury of the sun. Solar ultraviolet radiation breaks apart molecules and atoms creating a globe-straddling haze of electrons and ions.
Ham radio operators know the ionosphere well. They can communicate over the horizon by bouncing their signals off of the ionosphere-or communicate not at all when a solar flare blasts the ionosphere with X-rays and triggers a radio blackout.
The ionosphere also has a big impact on Global Positioning System (GPS) reception. Before a GPS satellite signal reaches the ground, it must first pass through ionospheric gases that bend, reflect and attenuate radio waves.
"Understanding the ionosphere is clearly important. That's why NASA's Living with a Star (LWS) program funded this work," said Guhathakurta.
After the user downloads the files for the program from the Internet, Google Earth will appear on their computer screen, with the globe wrapped in an atmosphere of vivid color.
"Colors represent electron content," explained W. Kent Tobiska, president of Space Environment Technologies.
Using the intuitive Google Earth interface, users can fly above, around and through these regions getting a true 3D view of the situation.
According to Tobiska, the view is more of 4D, which is time. "The fourth dimension is time. This is a real-time system updated every 10 minutes," he said.