By Erik Derr ( | First Posted: Apr 17, 2013 02:18 PM EDT

(Photo : courtesy NASA)

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have the official go-ahead to design, build and then operate a new satellite that will observe the connections between the earth's weather and the so-called space weather that impacts the planet's ionosphere, a school release said.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration  recently awarded the university up to $200 million satellite project, which scientists hope will provide a greater understanding exactly how conditions at the edge of space disrupt global positioning satellites (GPS) and radio communications.

The satellite, named the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), is scheduled for launch in 2017 and will orbit about 345 miles (550 kilometers) above the ground, in the ionosphere, where the sun ionizes air to create constantly shifting streams and sheets of charged particles. (Click here to see a NASA video of North America at night.)

By collecting data linked between weather patterns closer to the ground and space weather at the edge of space, the ICON will help scientist better predict space weather events that could  disrupt terrestrial communications.

"Ten years ago, we had no idea that the ionosphere was affected and structured by storms in the lower atmosphere," said the project's principal investigator, Thomas Immel, a senior fellow at the school's Space Sciences Laboratory. "We proposed ICON in response to this new realization."

The new research could potentially lead to better navigating methods for airliners, which today cannot rely solely on GPS satellites to fly and land because signals from these satellites can be distorted by charged-particle storms high above.

NASA announced the UC Berkeley award along with another mission called the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, which will image Earth's thermosphere and ionosphere from a commercial geosynchronous satellite.

"One of the frontier areas of heliophysics is the study of the interface between outer space and the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere," said John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "These selected projects use innovative solutions to advance our knowledge of this relatively unexplored region. The two missions together will result in significantly more advances in our understanding of Earth's atmosphere and ionosphere than either would alone."

Up until recently, the ionosphere was thought to be affected mainly by the solar wind, charged particles emitted from the sun.

When the sun is active and firing bursts of charged particles toward Earth, the ionosphere can erupt with chaotic storms.

But a number of satellites orbiting Earth on a variety of missions have collected data indicating activity in the ionosphere can't be fully explained by the effects of solar wind.

"We know that the solar wind plays a big role in the ionosphere, but most of the time the sun is relatively quiet, and our space environment still varies quite a bit," Immel said. "We think that variability is coming from weather on our own planet, which can be very powerful."

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