There are so many mysteries in space. However, the Earth itself is host to so many unanswered questions as well. One mystery lies just shy of the Earth, in the tumultuous area where our atmosphere ends and space begins.

The ionosphere is part of the Earth’s upper atmosphere. It’s critical to study for space exploration because of the charged particles in the ionosphere. The ions and extreme weather in this area have real implications for space exploration. GPS signal and radio waves can be disrupted while traveling through the ionosphere, which could be disastrous during future deep space exploration.

The ICON Mission

It’s the volatility of the ionosphere that compelled NASA to create a mission for ICON, or the Ionospheric Connection Explorer. The purpose of ICON is to study how, exactly, the Earth interfaces with space in the ionosphere.

Inside the ionosphere, terrestrial weather from the Earth meets with the space weather above. In this area, gases from the two zones meet, mixing neutral and charged particles together, resulting in strong winds. According to previous research, these winds change with the Earth’s seasons, as well as solar radiation.

NASA needed a way to monitor and collect data about the ionosphere. Over time, they hope to compile data so we can predict how changes in the ionosphere will affect communications systems during deep space exploration.

NASA called the ICON Mission to study the physics of this environment in space. Their hope is that the data gleaned from the mission will mitigate the effects the ionosphere has on technology on Earth, as well as communication in space.

ICON Features

ICON contains four groups of instruments to measure activity in the ionosphere.

1. MIGHTI: This instrument observes temperature and wind speed.
2. IVM: The Ion Velocity Meter observes the speed at which charged particles, or ions, travel. It specifically measures how ions react to winds and electrical fields in the ionosphere.
3. EUV: The Extreme Ultra-Violet instrument captures images of airglow, which is the phenomenon of oxygen glowing in the upper atmosphere. It also measures the height and density of the ionosphere in the daytime.
4. FUV: The Far Ultra-Violet instrument captures ultra-violet images of the ionosphere. At nighttime the FUV measures the weather and density of the ionosphere. During the daytime, FUV measures changes in the ionosphere through measuring charged gases.

Weighing as much as a vending machine (634 pounds) and measuring about the size of a door (100 inches by 33 inches), ICON will travel the Earth’s ionosphere, speeding by at 14,000 miles per hour. ICON will pass the entire Earth in just 1.5 hours, circling the planet 15 times a day. ICON creates one gigabyte of data per week, which is transmitted to NASA scientists stationed at their vantage point in Brazil.

The Launch

ICON will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will be sent into the ionosphere aboard the Northrup Grumman Pegasus XL rocket.

The launch for ICON was originally scheduled for October 24. Unfortunately, scientists found off-nominal data that postponed the launch. They caught the anomalies again during an attempted November 7 rocket launch. While ICON is in perfect condition, scientists need to conduct more pre-launch testing on the rocket that will carry ICON to ensure safe delivery to the ionosphere.

The data gleaned from ICON will be essential to mitigate problems during future space exploration. As humanity looks beyond the stars, and toward distant planets like Mars, we plan to tackle potential problems through the power of science. The ICON Mission is one small step forward to a future of exploration and adventure.