Earth  Sun  ID: 4594

ICON Scans the Ionosphere

The ICON (Ionospheric Connection Explorer) satellite orbits Earth at an altitude of 575 kilometers. In this visualization, we show the ICON spacecraft with the fields-of-view of four instruments for measuring the properties of the ionosphere.

ICON has an EUV (Extreme Ultraviolet) and FUV (Far Ultraviolet) imagers (violet colored frustrums directed from spacecraft) pointing perpendicular to the orbit direction for detecting ionospheric emissions. Two Doppler interferometer imagers, MIGHTI (Michelson Interferometer for Global High-resolution Thermospheric Imaging), represented by the blue frustrums, are directed at 45 degrees from the EUV and FUV imagers to measure ionospheric wind velocities.

Three reference models important in ionospheric physics are presented in this visualization. One of the goals of ICON is to improve on these models.

International Reference Ionosphere (IRI)

This model provides parameters such as electron temperature and density, ion temperature and the densities of various ions (O+, H+, He+, NO+, O2+). In this visualization, we display the atomic oxygen positive ion (a single atom ion) density at an altitude of 350 kilometers. On the limb of Earth, we present a vertical cross-section of the model, illustrating how the density varies with altitude and providing an altitude scale for comparison.

This dataset exhibits two notable characteristics.

  1. Daily variation: The oxygen ion density increases during the day and then decreases after nightfall. This is due to photoionization by solar ultraviolet light, which increases with sunrise to a maximum at local noon, and then decreases towards evening.

  2. Appleton Anomaly: One of the more striking features of the ion density is the daytime enhancement is split into two regions, distributed symmetrically above and below the magnetic equator. This feature was discovered by Edward Appleton in 1946. It is now understood to be an effect of the interaction of Earth's geomagnetic field with upper atmosphere electric fields, and often referred to as the 'fountain effect,' explained in 1965. The electric fields lift ions and electrons upward by E-cross-B drift (Plasma Zoo). At higher altitudes, the upward drift decreases and the geomagnetic field and gravity dominate the motion, guiding the charged particles earthward.

Horizontal Wind Model (HWM)

This model provides speed and direction of horizontal (parallel to Earth's surface) winds constructed from over 70 million ground-based and satellite measurements. Two altitude levels are displayed in this visualization: 350 kilometers (same altitude as the IRI oxygen ion data) in violet glyphs, and 100 kilometers (white glyphs). This model only extends to 60 degrees latitude, so there are gaps around the poles in this visualization.

One of the most notable characteristics in this dataset, particularly the 350 kilometer data, is how the winds are driven by the daily solar heating cycle. As the sun rises, the upper atmosphere is heated by solar ultraviolet light. This creates a high-pressure region which drives the atmosphere away from direct sunlight; westward in the morning and eastward in the afternoon. As the sun sets and the atmosphere cools, we see the wind reverse, filling in the now cooler and lower-pressure region.

International Geomagnetic Reference Field-12 (IGRF-12)

This model provides the structure of Earth's magnetic field which is a dominant influence on the motion of electrons and ions in the ionosphere. The geomagnetic field changes very slowly over decades. For this visualization, we display only a few field lines (golden wire-like structures) near the geomagnetic equator. As we observe the daily variation of the data, particularly the oxygen ions, we see the Appleton anomaly is hedged in by the low-latitude geomagnetic field.



Alternate Versions


Visualization Credits

Tom Bridgman (GST): Lead Visualizer
Tom Immel (SSL Berkeley): Lead Scientist
Genna Duberstein (USRA): Producer
Sarah Frazier (ADNET SYSTEMS): Producer
Laurence Schuler (ADNET Systems, Inc.): Technical Support
Ian Jones (ADNET Systems, Inc.): Technical Support
Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

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Data Used:
International Geomagnetic Reference Field
Horizontal Wind Model
International Reference Ionosphere
Note: While we identify the data sets used in these visualizations, we do not store any further details nor the data sets themselves on our site.

This item is part of this series:
Interface to Space

SVS >> Upper Atmosphere
GCMD >> Location >> Ionosphere
SVS >> Hyperwall
NASA Science >> Earth
NASA Science >> Sun
GCMD >> Earth Science >> Sun-earth Interactions >> Ionosphere/magnetosphere Dynamics

GCMD keywords can be found on the Internet with the following citation: Olsen, L.M., G. Major, K. Shein, J. Scialdone, S. Ritz, T. Stevens, M. Morahan, A. Aleman, R. Vogel, S. Leicester, H. Weir, M. Meaux, S. Grebas, C.Solomon, M. Holland, T. Northcutt, R. A. Restrepo, R. Bilodeau, 2013. NASA/Global Change Master Directory (GCMD) Earth Science Keywords. Version