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We’re On a Mission to Study The Zone Where Earth Meets Space!

We’re On a Mission to Study The Zone Where Earth Meets Space!

We’re launching ICON — short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer — a mission to explore the dynamic region where Earth meets space: the ionosphere!

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Earth’s ionosphere stretches from 50 to 400 miles above the ground, overlapping the top of our atmosphere and the very beginning of space. The Sun cooks gases there until they lose an electron (or two or three), creating a sea of electrically charged particles. But, the ionosphere also responds to weather patterns from Earth rippling up. These changes are complex and tricky to understand.

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That’s why we’re launching ICON! Changes in the ionosphere can affect astronauts, satellites and communications signals we use every day, like radio or GPS. Understanding these changes could help us eventually predict them — and better protect our technology and explorers in space.

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ICON will track changes in the ionosphere by surveying airglow. It’s a natural feature of Earth’s that causes our atmosphere to constantly glow. The Sun excites gases in the upper atmosphere, so they emit light. From 360 miles above Earth, ICON will photograph airglow to measure the ionosphere’s winds, composition and temperature. ICON also carries an instrument that will capture and measure the particles directly around the spacecraft.

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ICON is scheduled to launch on Oct. 10, on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket. The night of launch, the rocket is flown up to the sky by Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer airplane, which takes off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. From 40,000 feet above the open ocean, the Pegasus XL rocket drops from the plane and free-falls for about five seconds before igniting and carrying ICON into orbit.   

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NASA TV coverage of the launch starts at 9:15 p.m. EDT on Oct. 10 at nasa.gov/live. You can also follow along on Twitter, Facebook or at nasa.gov/icon.

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