Launching an ICON
Like Earth, space has weather. Except instead of swirling winds and downpours of precipitation, space weather is defined by shifting electric and magnetic fields and rains of charged particles. At the very beginning of space, starting just 60 miles above Earth’s surface and extending up about 300 miles more, a region of the atmosphere, called the ionosphere, shifts and changes in concert with both types of weather. The ionosphere is a part of Earth’s atmosphere where particles have been cooked into a sea of electrically charged electrons and ions by the Sun’s radiation. The ionosphere commingles with the very highest — and quite thin — layers of Earth’s neutral upper atmosphere. As a result, this region is constantly in flux, undergoing the push-and-pull between Earth’s conditions and those in space. NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, will enter Earth orbit in this transition region, which is home to astronauts and radio signals used to guide airplanes and ships, as well as satellites that provide our communications and GPS systems. ICON concentrates on how charged and neutral gases in the upper atmosphere behave and interact. Understanding the fundamental processes that govern their interactions is crucial to improve situational awareness that helps protect astronauts, spacecraft and the technology upon which our modern society relies. Watch the video to learn more.
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Airglow image credit: NASA/JSC/ESRS