NASA successfully launches ICON satellite to study dynamic ionosphere of Earth

Ths satellite wil last for 2 years and first data from this satellite is expected to come through by November 2019.


NASA has successfully launched a satellite, Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) that will study the earth’s ionosphere. This is an active layer of the atmosphere that grows or shrinks depending on the energy that it absorbs from the Sun and it is 80 to 1,000 km above the Earth's surface.

The ionosphere gets its name from the ionisation process that takes place when the Sun bombards the atoms and molecules in this part of the atmosphere and charges them.

The ionosphere comprises winds that are influenced by many different factors: Earth’s seasons, the heating and cooling that takes place throughout the day and bursts of radiation from the Sun. Using ICON, scientists will study the link between the space weather and terrestrial weather and how the two interact.

NASA successfully launches ICON satellite to study dynamic ionosphere of Earth

This illustration depicts NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite that will study the ionosphere. image credit: NASA

The satellite was launched on 10 October at 6.59 am IST on onboard a Northrop Grumman Stargazer L-1011 aircraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. ICON was placed in the payload fairing of the Pegasus XL rocket. Once the aircraft reached a height of 39,000 ft the rocket was dropped.

There was a delay in the dropping of the rocket due to the loss of communication between the aircraft and ground control.

Omar Baez, launch director in NASA’s Launch Services Program said in a statement, “When your launchpad is moving at 500/600 miles per hour (800 to 960 kmph) things happen. The first attempt got us because we lost positive communication with the aircraft and the ground, and our rule is to abort the flight and go back around and try it again. And we were able to execute it flawlessly.”

The Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, carrying NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON). image credit: NASA

The Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, carrying NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON). image credit: NASA

There are four instruments on the ICON. They are:

  • MIGHTI: The Michelson Interferometer for Global High-resolution Thermospheric Imaging instrument observes the temperature and speed of the neutral atmosphere. These winds and temperature fluctuations are driven by weather patterns closer to the Earth’s surface. In turn, the neutral winds drive the motions of the charged particles in space. MIGHTI is built by the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.
  • IVM: The Ion Velocity Meter will observe the speed of the charged particle motions, in response to the push of the high altitude winds and the electric fields they generate. The IVM is built by the University of Texas at Dallas.
  • EUV: The Extreme Ultra-Violet instrument captures images of oxygen glowing in the upper atmosphere, in order to measure the height and density of the daytime ionosphere. This helps track the response of the space environment to weather in the lower atmosphere. EUV is built by the University of California at Berkeley.
  • FUV: The Far Ultra-Violet instrument captures images of the upper atmosphere in the far ultraviolet light range. At night, FUV measures the density of the ionosphere, tracking how it responds to weather in the lower atmosphere. During the day, FUV measures changes in the chemistry of the upper atmosphere — the source for the charged gases found higher up in space. FUV is built by the University of California at Berkeley.

The ionosphere is the layer in the atmosphere where radio communications and GPS signals travel but space weather can cause interference with these signals. These interferences disrupt the technology that we are highly dependent on. ICON will try to find a way to mitigate its effects on our communications systems.

NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON). image credit: NASA

NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON). image credit: NASA

Space weather can also affect the orbit of the spacecraft and astronauts are exposed to a lot of radiation in this layer as well and a better understanding of it will help future space missions.

ICON will also measure how dense the atmosphere is and analyse its chemical composition.

First data from this satellite is expected to come through by November. It is supposed to be a two-year mission but if all goes well it can last for 10 years.

It will continue to study the ionosphere, orbiting 360 miles or 580 km above the Earth and will partner up with another of NASA’s projects called GOLD (Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk). which was launched in 2018 and has been studying the ionosphere as well.

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