NASA Spacecraft launches Ionospheric Connection Explorer to explore space frontier

NASA has announced the launch of its Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft for a mission to study a region of space where changes can disrupt communications and satellite orbits, and even increase radiation risks to astronauts, the company said.

A Northrop Grumman Stargazer L-1011 aircraft took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying ICON, on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, to launch altitude of about 39,000 feet.

ICON will study changes in a region of the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere. In addition to interfering with communications signals, space weather in the ionosphere can also prematurely decay spacecraft orbits and expose astronauts to radiation-borne health risks. Historically, this critical region of near-Earth space has been difficult to observe. Spacecraft can´t travel through the low parts of the ionosphere and balloons can´t travel high enough.

ICON explores the connections between the neutral atmosphere and the electrically charged ionosphere with four instruments. Three of the instruments rely on one of the upper atmosphere´s more spectacular phenomena: colorful bands called airglow.

ICON is an Explorer-class mission. NASA´s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the Explorer Program for NASA´s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.