NASA finally launched Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) satellite into the orbit after a delay of nearly two years. The satellite was packed in Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, which was released in midair from its carrier plane Stargazer L-1011, Space.com has reported. the launch took place on Thursday, October 10 at 10:00 pm EDT (7:30 am IST on October 11).
The ICON will be studying the Earth’s ionosphere, which is a massive layer of our planet’s atmosphere that overlaps with the boundary of space. It is a charged part of the upper atmosphere which extends several hundred miles up. This particular layer faces constant change due to space weather bombarding it from the above and the weather of our planet from below, which sometimes disrupts radio communications.
The measurements of the spacecraft will help the space scientists better understand the link between space weather and our planet’s weather, and how these two interact in the Earth’s ionosphere, the report said.
“The ionosphere is continually changing, and it’s very dynamic,” the report quoted Nicky Fox, head of NASA’s heliophysics division from a prelaunch news briefing earlier this week. “It’s not only a great place to go and study plasma physics, but it’s also a region that has a big space weather impact on us.”
Fox said that there’s too much going on in this particular region which is caused by just the Sun. Apart from this, hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather conditions on our planet too add energy.
Space researchers have been eager for the vending-machine-sized satellite to be launched to check what information it might provide us about this mysterious region. It is this region where strange and unique phenomena, such as the auroras and geomagnetic storms, take place. It is tough to forecast when these types of phenomena will occur since the ionosphere is a very difficult region to study, the report explained. The more the researchers get to know about it, the better spacecraft and astronauts can be protected in the Earth’s orbit with the help of improved forecasting.
Till approximately a decade ago, space researchers thought that the Sun caused the most changes in the ionosphere, however more recent research suggests it is not the case. Daily changes in the topmost region of the atmosphere are observed even when the Sun is not generating powerful storms.
The region where our planet’s weather meets weather of the space is also home to the International Space Station (ISS) and it is also a critical pathway for our communication satellites. The radio waves and Global Positioning System (GPS) signals directly pass through the ionosphere, and these signals can be get distorted by patches of ionised material.
The $252 million ICON probe will be placed into the thick of the ionosphere, in a circular orbit 357 miles (575 kilometres) above the surface of our planet. The satellite is equipped with various instruments which are designed for measuring winds and particles. It will also measure how dense the atmosphere is and also analyse its chemical composition.
These data were already supposed to be coming in as ICON was initially scheduled to launch way back in 2017, however, issues with Pegasus had caused multiple delays, the report said.
NASA had also launched the Gold satellite last year for studying the upper atmosphere, but the Gold mission is analysing it from a much higher region. More such missions are planned in the coming years for studying the ionosphere, including those from the ISS.