After a delay of two years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has launched a satellite to explore a mysterious part of Earth’s atmosphere. The satellite called ICON, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer, was shot into orbit from a plane over the Atlantic off the coast of the United State of Florida. ICON will send data intended to help researchers understand the mysterious, dynamic region where Earth’s atmosphere interacts with space. According to the US space agency, the ionosphere is a fluctuating layer of charged atoms and electrons and molecules ranging from 30 miles or 48 kilometers above the blue planet’s surface to 600 miles or 965 kilometers above the ground at the edge of space. Scientists claim that this region shrinks and contracts based on solar conditions.
Nicola Fox of NASA’s heliophysics division director said that the ionosphere is our frontier with space. Fox emphasised that it get bombarded by space weather from above like hurricanes and solar storms and Earth weather from below which at times lead to a disruption in radio communications. Electron particles present in this part facilitates long-distance radio communication as they reflect radio waves back towards the ground. But tornadoes and hurricanes sometimes result in fluctuation in the electron levels which eventually disrupts radio communications and damage satellite, reduce the accuracy of GPS systems and harm electrical grids. The better understanding of this layer will help scientists protect our spacecraft and astronauts in orbit through improved forecasting.
ICON, a refrigerator-size satellite, carries four types of instruments to study the ionosphere. These instruments have been developed at the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Texas at Dallas. It will study the airglow formed from gases in this party of earth’s outer atmosphere. It will also measure the charged environment right around the 580-kilometer-high (360-mile-high) spacecraft. Another NASA mission named GOLD, launched last year, is also studying the ionosphere. The space agency has planned more such missions in the coming years to the upper atmosphere.