NASA launched a satellite on Thursday night to explore the mysterious, dynamic region where air meets space.
The satellite—called Icon, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer—rocketed into orbit following a two-year delay. It was dropped from a plane flying over the Atlantic off the Florida coast.
Five seconds after the satellite’s release, the attached Pegasus rocket ignited, sending Icon on its way.
The ionosphere is the charged part of the upper atmosphere extending several hundred miles (kilometres) up. It’s in constant flux as space weather bombards it from above and Earth weather from below, sometimes disrupting radio communications.
“This protected layer, it’s the top of our atmosphere. It’s our frontier with space,” said NASA’s heliophysics division director, Nicola Fox.
Fox said there’s too much going on in this region to be caused by just the sun. Hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather conditions on earth are also adding energy, she noted.
The more scientists know, the better spacecraft and astronauts can be protected in orbit through improved forecasting.
The refrigerator-size Icon satellite will study the airglow formed from gases in the ionosphere and also measure the charged environment right around the 360-mile-high (580-kilometre-high) spacecraft.
“It’s a remarkable physics laboratory,” said principal scientist Thomas Immel of the University of California, Berkeley, which is overseeing the two-year mission. AP
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