NASA’s ICON mission to discover where Earth’s weather meets space weather launched on 10th October in the evening at 10 p.m. Eastern Time from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Position in Florida. ICON was air-launched on Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargrazer aircraft on the Pegasus XL rocket. The first shot at 9:33 p.m. was cancelled because communication was lost with the aircraft, but the aircraft circled around and the second launch effort was effective.
The mission was originally expected to launch last November. It was postponed “following the completion of a joint NASA/Northrop Grumman investigation into a Pegasus sensor reading that was not within standard limits during prior ferry and launch attempt flights. The source of the issue is understood, and the flight hardware has been altered to tackle the issue,” according to NASA.
“After years of effort, I’m eager to get into orbit and turn on the spaceship, open the gates on all our instruments,” said Thomas Immel, ICON principal researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “ICON carries incredible aptitude for science. I’m looking forward to amazing results and finally seeing the world through its eyes.”
ICON, or the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, will take a closer view from inside the upper atmosphere itself, 350 miles directly above Earth. ICON can also directly determine particles and how they move. It will function amid bright groups of color known as airglow.
Airglow, which creates groups of green and red or yellow and purple light, occurs when atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere cast off excess energy because they obtain so much from the sun in this area.
Not like auroras, airglow is continuous because of regular radiation, making a light bubble around the Earth. But it can’t be observed unless you’re revolving the Earth on the International Space Station or using a complex camera from the earth on a clear night. Each atmospheric gas has its own chosen airglow color dependent on the gas, excitation process, and altitude region, so you can use airglow to examine different strata of the atmosphere,” Doug Rowland, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, revealed in a statement. “We’re not reviewing airglow per se, but using it as an indicative.”
“It’s amazing that our atmosphere sparks like this, but what’s more — it gives us a straight capability to make observations of the key factors we need in order to examine the connection between the ionosphere and the neutral atmosphere, I can’t wait to see what airglow looks like from ICON’s perspective.”Immel said.
The ionosphere, where Earth connects with space, is an active environment full of electrically charged particles and it’s always fluctuating. It’s also been challenging to study because it’s too low for satellites and too high for science balloons to allow for more observation.
But there are signs that space weather and weather on Earth are connected, and they generate a power struggle as they encounter in the ionosphere. ICON will be able to witness this up close.
“We’ve had the smoking gun — that showed space and terrestrial weather are linked — but we’ve been missing real observations in the region where these variations are occurring,” said Scott England, ICON project scientist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. “ICON has the apparatuses to see the drivers and their effects in the system.”
This will work in collaboration with another NASA mission that launched last year, Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or the GOLD mission, which searches the zone between Earth’s atmosphere and the lowest ranges of space, where key communications satellites circle.
GOLD is inspecting the response of the upper atmosphere to power from the sun, the magnetosphere, and the lower atmosphere. Educating more about the ionosphere — part of Earth’s upper atmosphere where the sun’s emission strikes with gas that breaks into ions and electrons — is key. This dynamic environment is always varying and could easily distort radio signals coming through our atmosphere.
This joint global and fine-scale view from GOLD and ICON will offer scientists with exclusive outlooks and a more comprehensive picture of “our interface to space,” the agency said.
The director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division in Washington, Nicola Fox said, it’s a truly wonderful time to be studying heliophysics.
“We just launched Parker Solar Probe previously this year, which will give us the first detail view of what drives the solar wind. Now, with ICON entering our heliophysics system fleet, we will have the extremely detailed quantities of the ionosphere’s response to the solar drivers. This is a remarkable prospect to study the whole system response,” he said.