NASA Finally Launches Its Delayed ICON Mission to Study the Ionosphere

ICON has launched to study the area where auroras and geomagnetic storms are created.
Chris Young

A long-delayed NASA mission, which is aimed at studying the upper reaches of the Earth's atmosphere, has just launched.

The Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft was launched last night (October 10) at 10:00 p.m. EDT.

It was released in midair from a Stargazer L-1011 carrier plane which was carrying an impressive payload of the ICON spacecraft aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket.


The ionosphere

ICON will study the planet's ionosphere. As writes, this is an enormous layer of Earth's atmosphere that overlaps with the boundary of space.

The spacecraft's measurements will help scientists better understand how space weather conditions affect terrestrial weather.

“ICON has an important job to do – to help us understand the dynamic space environment near our home,” Nicola Fox, director for heliophysics at NASA HQ in Washington, said in a NASA blog post.

“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.”

Understanding the Earth's atmosphere

As points out, the International Space Station (ISS) and other important satellites pass through the ionosphere. It is a turbulent layer of the Earth's atmosphere. 

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Radio waves and Global Positioning System (GPS) signals are sent through this layer, and these signals can be distorted by patches of ionized material.

NASA Finally Launches Its Delayed ICON Mission to Study the Ionosphere
Stargazer L-1011. Source: NASA

Understanding how, and when this will happen can lead to better satellite communications. Auroras and geomagnetic storms are also created in this area and ICON should provide insight into these phenomena.

The $252 million ICON spacecraft was flown up to the ionosphere by a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket that detached from a Stargazer L-1011 aircraft. 

The mission was originally scheduled to launch in 2017 but was delayed due to issues related to the Pegasus XL rocket.

It is equipped with several instruments that will measure winds and particles, as well as the density of the atmosphere's chemical composition.

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