NASA launched a satellite on 10 October 2019 night to explore the mysterious, dynamic region where air meets space. The satellite — called ICON, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer — rocketed into orbit following a two-year delay. It was dropped from a plane flying over the Atlantic off the Florida coast. Five seconds after the satellite’s release, the attached Pegasus rocket ignited, sending Icon on its way.
- The ionosphere is the charged part of the upper atmosphere extending several hundred miles (kilometers) up. It’s in constant flux as space weather bombards it from above and Earth weather from below, sometimes disrupting radio communications.
- This protected layer, it’s the top of our atmosphere. It’s our frontier with space, said NASA’s heliophysics division director, Nicola Fox.
- The refrigerator-size ICON satellite will study the airglow formed from gases in the ionosphere and also measure the charged environment right around the spacecraft which is at a level of 580 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
- A NASA satellite launched last year, Gold, is also studying the upper atmosphere, but from much higher up. More missions are planned in coming years to study the ionosphere, including from the International Space Station.
- ICON should have soared in 2017, but problems with Northrop Grumman’s air-launched Pegasus rocket interfered. Despite the long delay, NASA said the $252 million mission did not exceed its price cap.