NASA launched a satellite – called ICON, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer – on Thursday night to study a region of space where changes can disrupt communications and satellite orbits, and even increase radiation risks to astronauts. The satellite is finally in the orbit after years of delays and postponed launches.
A Northrop Grumman Stargazer L-1011 aircraft took off 8:31 p.m. EDT on October 10th, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying ICON, on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, to launch altitude of about 39,000 feet. The aircraft took off about an hour and a half earlier from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here. The aircraft crew released its payload at 9:59 p.m. EDT and automated systems on the Pegasus rocket launched ICON, a spacecraft roughly the size of a refrigerator, into space.
The ICON will study the changes in a region of the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere. This refrigerator-sized satellite will then transmit data intended to help scientists understand the physical processes at work where Earth’s atmosphere interacts with near-Earth space. The observations could also help understand why the ionosphere’s weather can cause spacecraft to decay prematurely and expose astronauts to radiation-borne health risks.
NASA says spacecraft can’t travel through the low parts of the ionosphere and balloons can’t travel high enough, and therefore it is very difficult to observe this critical region of near-Earth space. “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,” said Nicola Fox, director for heliophysics at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The agency also explained that after an approximately month-long commissioning period, ICON will begin sending back its first science data in November.