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Artist's illustration of ICON. Image: NASA Goddard's Conceptual Image Lab/B. Monroe

A NASA satellite designed to investigate a critical layer of Earth's atmosphere launched to space last Thursday.

Why it matters: Scientists think the ionosphere can interfere with communications, expose astronauts to high radiation and even drag satellites down through the atmosphere earlier than expected when space weather hits.

The spacecraft — called the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) — is tasked with gathering data about the ionosphere to understand how the region affects satellites and people in space.

  • “ICON will be the first mission to simultaneously track what’s happening in Earth’s upper atmosphere and in space to see how the two interact, causing the kind of changes that can disrupt our communications systems," Nicola Fox, NASA's director for heliophysics, said in a statement.

Details: 3 of ICON's 4 instruments are designed to study airglow — bands of faint light created when neutral particles in the atmosphere are slammed by radiation from the sun, exciting the particles and causing them to emit light.

  • Airglow is similar to the northern or southern lights, but instead of being relegated just to high latitudes, airglow instead appears all over the world.
  • ICON data should help piece together how airglow works.
  • The spacecraft's 4th instrument will measure the environment around ICON.

The bottom line: Space weather poses a major threat to people living in space and satellites in orbit, so the data ICON gathers about the way the ionosphere behaves is critical to help protect those assets and people in orbit.

Go deeper: The coming cost of moving satellites

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Trump blocks banks from limiting loans to gun and oil companies

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big banks are no longer allowed to reject business loan applicants because of the industry in which they operate, according to a new rule finalized on Thursday by the Trump administration.

Why it matters: Wall Street has curtailed its exposure to industries like guns, oil and private prisons, driven by both public and shareholder pressures. This new rule could reverse that trend.

Former FDA commissioner: "Reliable drug supply is absolutely critical"

Axios' Caitlin Owens and former FDA commissioner Mark McClellan. Photo courtesy of Axios Events

Having a reliable supply of pharmaceutical drugs throughout America will be "absolutely critical" to boosting affordability in health care during the Biden administration, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Mark McClellan said at a virtual Axios Event on Friday.

The big picture: McClellan, who served under President George W. Bush, says drugs having limited supply and limited competition leads to elevated pricing. He considers drug supply to be a national security and public health issue.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
4 hours ago - Economy & Business

Americans are still spending money

Source: Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans spent more money at stores and restaurants in 2020 than they did in 2019 — even in the face of a devastating global pandemic that shut down broad sectors of the economy.

Why it matters: The monthly retail sales report this morning came in well below expectations, and showed consumer spending falling on a seasonally-adjusted basis. Total expenditures were still higher in December 2020 than they were a year previously, however.