NASA has launched the ICON explorer spacecraft to the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space to discover the environment in that region that’s harmful to both in-orbit satellites and humans that pass through it.
ICON or the Ionospheric Connection Explorer launched October 10 at 10:00 p.m. EDT (0200 GMT on October 11) aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, which was released in midair from its carrier plane, a Stargazer L-1011, to an altitude of 39,000 feet. The aircraft had taken off about an hour and a half earlier from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Although the spacecraft is finally in orbit, the launch comes after years of delays and postponed launches.
ICON was designed to detect and study changes in the ionosphere, a region of the upper atmosphere bombarded by space weather from above and Earth’s weather from below. The ionosphere is of particular interest to researchers because it is in an area composed of ions and electrons, and the reflection is due to the interaction of the electrons with the electromagnetic fields of the radio waves.
NASA intends to send the 288-kilogram ICON satellite to observe the interaction between terrestrial and space weather in the upper atmosphere. Studying that interaction can help scientists better predict the impacts of space weather phenomena.
Also, ICON carries scientific instruments that can study plasma waves in the ionosphere, a layer in the upper atmosphere where colorful auroras are generated. Changes in the ionosphere can also affect communications and navigation signals coming from satellites.
The spacecraft will send back data that could help scientists figure out how we can deal with ionospheric interference that affects communication signals. Also, its observations could help us understand why the ionosphere’s weather can cause spacecraft to decay prematurely, as well as know more about the radiation-related health risks it poses to astronauts.
NASA says ICON’s job is essential because it’s not easy observing that part of the atmosphere: it’s too low for most spacecraft and too high for balloons.
Nicola Fox, director for heliophysics at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said: “ICON will be the first mission to simultaneously track what’s happening in Earth’s upper atmosphere and in space to see how the two interact, causing the kind of changes that can disrupt our communications systems.”
“The ionosphere is continually changing, and it’s very dynamic,” Fox explained during a prelaunch news briefing on October 8.
“The ionosphere is a remarkable physics lab,” Fox said. “It’s not only a great place to go and study plasma physics, but it’s also a region that has a big space weather impact on us.”
The spacecraft will spend the next month observing the ionosphere and collecting information. NASA expects it to start sending back its first science data in November.