Mission Overview

The primary goal of the AWE mission is to understand how Earth’s weather affects space weather via small-scale atmospheric gravity waves (AGWs). The AWE mission will explore the global distribution of AGWs and how they move through the upper atmosphere, vary with the seasons, and contribute to space weather.
A black and white simulation of gravity waves over Earth.
WAACM-X global gravity waves simulation. (Credit: Liu et al., 2014)

Connecting Earth & Space Weather

A graphic depicting Earth's weather in the atmosphere.


Earth’s weather and topography play a significant role in space weather. Both weather and topography form AGWs, but wave propagation on a global scale is not well understood. The AWE mission will identify AGW “hot spots” and study how AGWs propagate, vary seasonally, and contribute to space weather.

A graphic depicting atmospheric gravity waves rippling over a mountain.


Waves occur naturally in our atmosphere when buoyancy pushes air up and gravity pulls it back down. This push and pull of air creates ripple-like waves. AGWs are mainly caused by atmospheric disturbances, such as strong winds flowing over steep mountains, violent thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes. AGWs travel, break, and transport energy and momentum to other parts of the atmosphere.

A motion graphic depicting atmospheric gravity waves in space.


Some small-scale AGWs are capable of traveling to the boundary that separates Earth’s atmosphere from space, where the AWE mission will image them. These AGWs may continue propagating upward, impacting and modifying the space weather system. Understanding changes in near-Earth space is key to protecting our space-based resources, as space weather can disrupt communication and navigation systems and impact spacecraft and debris lifetimes in orbit.

Mission Architecture

To characterize AGWs in near-Earth Space, AWE’s Advanced Mesospheric Temperature Mapper (AMTM) will be installed on the International Space Station (ISS). Once in place, the AMTM instrument will capture wide field of view nighttime images at the rate of one image per second for two years. The AMTM will produce high-quality temperature maps of AGWs near the mesopause region using well-characterized infrared emission lines of the hydroxyl (3,1) band, also known as Earth’s OH layer. The AMTM will image these waves, about 55 miles (~87 kilometers) above the ground, before they enter the near-Earth space environment.

Explore the AWE Payload

Why the ISS?

The ISS provides an ideal combination of altitude, geographic coverage, and local time coverage to accomplish AWE’s science objectives, making it the perfect vantage point to look down on Earth and view gravity waves affecting the upper atmosphere.

A graphic showing the layers of the atmosphere, the International Space Station in the exosphere, and its wide field of view recording AGWs in the mesopause.

Mission Timeline

In 2015, the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) and Utah State University (USU) developed an optical design for the ISS-compatible version of the AMTM instrument. The AWE mission concept was then formulated and proposed in response to NASA’s 2016 Heliophysics Explorer Mission of Opportunity. NASA selected AWE following a rigorous selection process, with development beginning in 2019.


Feb 25, 2019
AWE mission selected for development


Feb 5, 2020
System Requirements Review/Mission Definition Review
Dec 22, 2020
Key Decision Point-C (Mission confirmed for implementation)



Jan 2022
Assembly and environmental testing of engineering model instrument completed
June - Oct 2022
Environmental testing and calibration of the AMTM flight instrument completed


June 2023
Pre-Ship Review
Sept 2023
Pre-launch operations at Kennedy Space Center
Nov 2023
Launch and dock with ISS
Robotic transfer of payload from launch vehicle to ISS ELC-1 Site 3
Power up and begin operations


Atmospheric Waves Experiment
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The material is based upon work supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under Contract Number 80GSFC18C0007.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.