NASA scientists hope to better understand far outer atmosphere with ICON mission

Weather

NASA is set to launch a new satellite, the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), into orbit Wednesday night on the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket. Their hope is to better understand the ways in which the far outer atmosphere is affected by space weather and Earth-based turbulence. ICON is planned for a two year mission circling 360 miles above the Earth.

Purple shading indicates ‘ionosphere’ – thick layer of charged particles 50 to 360 miles above the surface of the planet

What is the ionosphere?

The ionosphere is the outermost layer of the atmosphere stretching 30 miles to 600 miles above the surface. This part of the atmosphere is important as this is what makes radio communications and GPS navigation possible.

ICON’s goal

As stated by NASA:

“Pressure differences created by weather near Earth’s surface can propagate into the very highest reaches of the upper atmosphere and influence the winds in this region. The exact role these winds—and by extension, terrestrial weather—play in shaping the ionosphere remains an outstanding question, and one that scientists hope ICON will answer.”

Exploring the Ionosphere, Earth’s Interface to Space | NASA

Why is it important?

Unpredictable changes in the ionosphere can interfere with communication and navigation here at the surface. Changes in the electric current in the ionosphere can put strain on surface-based technologies and in some cases, causing outages.

For more information on NASA’s ICON mission, click here.

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