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NASA’s ICON is on a mission to investigate the ionosphere

The ICON satellite.
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