NASA explorer mission ICON developed to study weather conditions in the ionosphere

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To better understand the ionosphere, the dynamic layer where Earth’s upper most atmosphere meets the beginning layers of space, NASA has developed the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) explorer mission set to launch Wednesday, Oct. 9 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Working in concert with its sister satellite GOLD that began collecting data one year ago, the two missions will collectively gather the most comprehensive imaging of the upper atmosphere ever seen.

Scott England, associate professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, serves as the project scientist for ICON and contributes as a co-investigator on the GOLD mission. The purpose of the ICON mission is to better understand the physical aspects of the space environment and its effects on our technology and communications systems that guide airplanes, ships, and support our GPS systems.

“As we begin to analyze the data from this mission the research will help advance our understanding of how the weather relates from the surface of the Earth to the edge of space,” said England.

ICON will observe weather conditions from both sides, where terrestrial weather from below meets the plasma environment that surrounds the earth from above. This region of space has a mix of neutral and charged particles traveling through giant winds, which can shift due to Earth’s seasons, the day’s varying temperatures, and incoming bursts of radiation from the sun.

The spacecraft, built by Northrop Grumman, will launch on a Pegasus XL rocket.

The spacecraft has been attached to the rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and flown to Florida for launch. ICON will not be launched from a traditional launchpad, but instead flown into the stratosphere on Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft. When it reaches the right altitude, the rocket will drop, ignite, and carry ICON to the ionosphere, where it will stay in low orbit for its two-year mission.

Leading the science team, England, along with Virginia Tech engineering students will conduct research throughout ICON’s two-year mission at Space@VT. The team is also writing software to analyze the data collected from ICON and GOLD. Taking the data from the ground processing centers, the team will make detailed examinations and calibrate measurements on density, motion, temperature, and energy and then compare it against data from GOLD and previously collected data.

The Virginia Tech students involved in the NASA project are: Andrew Norton and Md Nurul Huda, who are pursuing master’s degrees in aerospace engineering; and Christopher Krier, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering.

“This research work will alter what our students are working on and studying at Virginia Tech, both in the short term and long term,” said England. “In the short term, comparing the new data from ICON with data previously collected from this region, but from a different perspective, will help us test our current understanding of this region. In the long term, the ICON observations will really let us see what processes are governing the make-up of this region and how it moves.”