NASA loses contact with $252 million ICON satellite, fears total system failure

The space agency said, "the lack of a downlink signal could be indicative of a system failure."
Chris Young
NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON)
NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON)

NASA 

NASA has lost contact with a three-year-old satellite in Earth orbit.

The space agency's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) lost contact with ground controllers two weeks ago and is orbiting Earth without a connection. NASA fears this may be due to a system failure that could mean it has lost contact with the satellite for good.

ICON is an atmosphere-studying satellite that was operating beyond its intended lifetime before it lost contact on Nov. 25, NASA wrote in a blog post.

NASA's ICON may have suffered "system failure"

NASA has yet to identify why ICON lost contact with ground stations. In its blog post, the space agency said the satellite features an onboard command loss timer that will reset ICON if contact is lost for eight days. Unfortunately, the reset hasn't worked, as the ground team could not regain communications on December 5 after those initial eight days had passed.

Though NASA has lost communication with ICON, the space agency used the Department of Defense’s Space Surveillance Network to confirm that ICON is still orbiting Earth.

"The ICON mission team is working to troubleshoot the issue and has narrowed the cause of the communication loss to problems within the avionics or radio-frequency communications subsystems," NASA wrote in its post. “The team is currently unable to determine the health of the spacecraft, and the lack of a downlink signal could be indicative of a system failure."

NASA is "still working to establish a connection"

ICON launched aboard a Stargazer L-1011 carrier plane back in October 2019. The mission, which cost $252 million, was originally scheduled to launch in 2019, though it was delayed due to issues related to its launch vehicle, a Pegasus XL rocket that was eventually deployed aboard the Stargazer L-1011 carrier plane.

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The satellite orbits at an altitude of approximately 360 miles (580 kilometers) above Earth and was designed to observe the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere and how Earth weather and space weather interact. It features four instruments capable of measuring the characteristics of the ionosphere and capturing ultra-violet images of the upper atmosphere. Analyzing the ionosphere can lead to better satellite communications and a better understanding of aurora and geomagnetic storms.

The ICON mission was initially intended to last two years, but it has been operating on an extended timeline since December 2021. It's not uncommon for NASA missions to exceed initial expectations. For example, the space agency's Ingenuity Mars helicopter recently flew higher than ever on its 35th mission. It was initially expected only to perform a total of five flights.

NASA said, "the team is currently still working to establish a connection" with ICON, but time might be up for this space weather satellite that has exceeded its original mission parameters.

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