NASA launches ICON satellite to study ionosphere
NASA is currently preparing to launch the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) by December 8, 2017. The ICON is a low-orbit satellite which will be used to acquire new insight on the interaction between the Earth’s atmosphere and space. The interaction being studied is expected to yield new knowledge on satellite safety as well communication signal quality.
The new satellite is set to investigate the relationship and interactions between the neutral atmosphere and the ionosphere. The ionosphere, one of the outermost layers of the atmosphere, contains electrical charges that have the potential to interrupt communication signals. The charge found in the ionosphere also has the potential to cause satellites flying at low-Earth orbit to acquire a strong electrical charge. In some instances, these charges are strong enough to cause blackouts on the ground. The ionosphere’s current interactions with atmospheric conditions on Earth and on near-space is at present, not thoroughly defined.
Thomas Immel, from the University of California, Berkeley, one of the lead scientists for the ICON mission stated that “The conditions in our space environment, space weather, is something we need to be able to forecast.” He mentions that the lack of existing knowledge on the ionosphere makes it difficult to make predictions.
What makes it difficult to study?
The density of the atmosphere gradually lowers the farther away from the ground. Conventional aircraft are unable to fly higher than 60 mile kilometers because of how thin the air is. This height is approximately where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins.
At this height, air particles are far above the Earth’s protective Ozone layer. Particles here are bombarded, full force, by immense levels of solar radiation. This causes a change in the air particles. They are broken down into highly reactive gases. The sun radiation then knocks away electrons from these gases. This is why the ionosphere, is electrically charged.
The Earth’s weather also affects the ionosphere. Wind movement and weather patterns also make a difference in how particles in the ionosphere behave.
The ionosphere has remained difficult to predict. This is because of an information gap on the interaction between lower atmosphere weather and the electrically charged air in the ionosphere.
High expectations on ICON
ICON is a large step forward for scientists to gain a better understanding of how these different variables interact. The question of “How the Earth’s weather affects space weather?” is something that the program seeks to shed light on.
What is known is that Space weather is largely controlled by changes in the sun. When the sun releases solar winds and coronal mass ejections, the ionosphere receives the brunt of the radiation. These materials from our sun can distort Earth’s natural magnetic field.
These magnetic distortions can have detrimental effects for many of our communication technology. Numerous low-Earth orbiting satellites fly through the ionosphere in the course of their orbit. These sudden distortions of the magnetic field can significantly impact the ability of these satellites to function.
Understanding and predicting the behavior of the ionosphere and its effects on signal disruptions has always been difficult. The large number of variables to consider has always been a major constraint. Until recently, scientists believed that the conditions within the ionosphere were solely dictated by space and the sun’s behavior. New research has disproved that notion. Scientists, today know that there is still so much to learn about what contributes to the state of the ionosphere.
ICON is to be deployed from a launchpad from the Marshall Islands via a Pegasus Rocket. The launch will be covered by NASA TV.
A team of scientists will be monitoring the progress of the satellite at UC Berkeley, 24/7. ICON is expected to be fully-capable of sending and receiving data a month after the launch date.