Early in the morning of November 7, 2018, NASA launches the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, a spacecraft exploring the…
Early in the morning of November 7, 2018, NASA launches the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, a spacecraft exploring the dynamic region where the Earth meets space: the ionosphere.
Overlaps the last few years in the Earth’s atmosphere, and at the beginning of space, the ionosphere stretches about 50 to 400 miles above the surface. Solar radiation makes thin gases there until they lose an electron (or two or three), creating a sea of electrically charged ions and electrons. Even the whole earth or space, the ionosphere reacts to both winds and weather from the lower atmosphere below, and solar currents flow from within, constantly changing to form conditions called space storms.
“After many years of work, I’m excited to get into circulation and hit the spacecraft, open the doors of all our instruments,” says Thomas Immel, ICON’s main researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “ICON has an incredible capacity for science. I’m looking forward to surprising results and finally seeing the world through their eyes.”
As far as space goes, the jonosphere is as close to home as it gets. Its constant changes can affect astronauts, satellites and many of the communication signals on which modern society is based. Researchers want to understand these changes so they can eventually predict them better and protect our interests in space.
The space can look empty, but the ionosphere brims with electrically charged gases, solar radiation and electrical and magnetic fields. Turbulence in this ocean of charged particles can occur as disturbances that interfere with satellites or communication and navigation signals used for example to control aircraft, ships and self-propelled cars.
Depending on the energy it absorbs from the sun, the ionosphere grows and shrinks. For this reason, scientists long thought that this part of space was only influenced by what happens in space above it.
But in the last decade, a growing body has proved that the region is much more variable than we can explain solely solely. The ionosphere content is not evenly distributed: Dense spots of their charged gases, called plasma, are spread everywhere. Eventually, scientists linked these patches to global weather patterns ̵
1; large-scale events like multiple hurricanes rushing across the ocean at one time or changing clouds over tropical rainforests.
Although the sun gives the energy that drives weather we experience on Earth, the daily weather is driven by something different: differences in temperature and humidity, sea and ground interaction and regions with high and low atmospheric pressure. Nevertheless, scientists were surprised to discover that terrestrial weather and the sun managed to meet in the middle – at the ionic sphere – in a war of war for control.
Strong winds over the surface of the planet carry energy all over the world and can indirectly modify the ionosphere by pushing around charged particles in the upper atmosphere. That movement creates an electric field that controls the behavior of the particles through the electrically charged ionosphere.
Part of the reason that the ionosphere has remained so mysterious until now the region is difficult to observe. Too high for scientific balloons and low for satellites, the lower ionosphere in particular – where the earth and space are the strongest connected – have eliminated much of the technical scientists have used to study close to Earth’s space. But ICON is uniquely equipped to explore the region.
“We have had the smoke gun – indicating that terrestrial and space weather are linked – but we have missed actual observations in the region where these changes take place” said Scott England, ICON project researcher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. “ICON has all the tools to see drivers and their effects in the system.”
From the low-earth lane, ICON will explore these connections by tracking air annealing, an ornament for our planet’s upper atmosphere. It refers to the light that shines from the ionosphere, encloses the earth in a fancy bubble of red, green and yellow. Airglow is created by a similar process that sparks auroran: Gas is excited and emits light. Although auroras are usually restricted to extreme northern and southern latitudes, airflow is constantly shining all over the world and is much weaker.
“It’s amazing that our atmosphere is glowing like this, but it’s more – it gives us a direct ability to make observations of the most important parameters we need to investigate the relationship between the neutral atmosphere and the ionosphere,” said Immel.  Different atmospheric gases shine in certain colors and at specific heights so scientists can use air annealing to distinguish the different layers of the atmosphere, gather information such as density, temperature and composition. In addition, the natural glow of the earth contributes to researchers tracking movements within the ionosphere itself: Because large heights of wind sweep through the region and push in its contents, the weak light of the air glow diminishes traces of global patterns.
“I can not wait to see what air aperture looks like from ICON’s point of view,” says Immel.
ICON’s 90-minute launch window opens at 3:00 AM EST on November 7, 2018. ICON launches on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, carried on the Stargazer L-1011 aircraft that departs from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The L-1011 carries the rocket to approximately 40,000 feet across the open sea, where it is released and released five seconds before its first-rocket rocket engine is assumed. Issue from Stargazer is expected for 3:05 pm EST. The spacecraft is deployed approximately 11 minutes after the Pegasus case.
ICON will join another jonospheric mission, GOLD, Global-scale Observations of Limb and Disk card launched in January 2018. While ICON is flying only 357 miles above the ground and will capture close-ups of the region, flying GOLD in the geological field 22,000 miles across the western hemisphere, where it specializes in global images of the ionosphere and the upper atmosphere. When ICON takes close-ups, GOLD takes landscapes.
Together, these missions will provide the most comprehensive ionosphere observations we have ever had – data difficult to get from the earth where we can only measure small fractions in the region at a time that allows for a deeper understanding of how our planet interacts with space.
“It’s a wonderful time to study helio physics,” said Nicola Fox, head of NASA’s Heliophysis Department in Washington. “We have just launched the Parker Solar Probe earlier this year, giving us the first close-up of what drives the solar wind. Now, with ICON joining our heliophysics system fleet, we will get the incredibly detailed measurements of the ionosphere’s response to the sunbathers. This is a great opportunity to study the entire system’s response. “
NASA Helio Physics missions study a large interconnected system from the sun to space around the globe and other planets and to the outermost limits of the sun’s ever-flowing stream of solar wind. ICON’s observations will provide important information on how the Earth’s atmosphere is linked to this complex dynamic system.
ICON is an Explorer class assignment. NASA Goddard manages Explorers Program for NASA’s Heliophysics Division at the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. UC Berkeley’s space science laboratory developed and operated the ICON mission and built the EUV and FUV slides. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, developed the MIGHTI Instrument, Texas University in Dallas, developed IVM and ICON spacecraft and Pegasus launch vehicles built by Northrop Grumman in Dulles, Virginia.
NASA launch tires begin at. 14.48 EST on November 7, 2018. Follow the start cover on NASA Television here
Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON,
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