On the evening of October 10, 2019, NASA launched its ICON mission from the Florida-based Cape Canaveral Air Force station. ICON, Ionospheric Connection Explorer in full, was air-launched aboard the Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargrazer spacecraft on the Pegasus XL. The launch had been initially attempted at 9.33 pm but was unsuccessful due to communication hitches, but a later start after the aircraft completed a loop went successfully. The delay was not the first, however, as the launch scheduled for November 2018 was canceled due to an unusual Pegasus sensor reading, which was later addressed, according to NASA.

ICON principal investigator at the University of California, Thomas Immel, said that the team is excited to get ICON into orbit and begin the use of the instruments on the craft. He further said that after years of hard work, the scientists are looking forward to the surprising results sent back. The ICON will operate in the ionosphere within bright color bands known as airglow. Airglow, occurring as red, purple, green or yellow light, is made when atoms in the upper atmosphere lose excess energy from the sun. The constant glow cannot be seen from the earth except with a unique sensitive camera at night or while orbiting the earth. The ionosphere is the part of Earth’s atmosphere in contact with space and has been relatively unstudied because it is too low for satellites and also too high for weather balloons. 

So far, indicators show that the weather on earth and space are linked, and ICON will be able to observe their interaction up close. According to Scott England, a scientist on the ICON project at Virginia Tech, the ICON will be able to fill the blanks in the knowledge of the region since it has the tools to test the ionosphere, around 560 kilometers above the ground, and its’ effects on Earth. Each gas glows differently on the ionosphere depending on altitude, the gas, and the excitation process. The airglow can be used to make observations that will aid in the analysis of the connection between the earth and space according to Doug Rowland, an astrophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Centre.

The project will work in collaboration with the other NASA mission launched in 2018: the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD). GOLD operates in the region between the atmosphere on Earth and space, where it investigates how the upper atmosphere responds to force from the magnetosphere, the lower atmosphere, and the sun.

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