First ICON Science Data Released to Public

On June 22, NASA’s ICON team released scientific data collected during the spacecraft’s first eight months in orbit to the public.

The data release features observations from ICON’s four instruments — MIGHTI, FUV, EUV, and IVM — which have been observing the ins and outs of the ionosphere, the sea of charged particles high in the upper atmosphere. Scientists have been busy parsing the wealth of observations collected by ICON in preparation for the mission’s first science results, which will be released later this year.

“ICON was designed, built, and launched to provide data we had never seen before, and it has not disappointed us in any regard,” said Thomas Immel, ICON principal investigator at University of California, Berkeley. Immel said he was pleased to share ICON’s first data with the world. “The sensitivity and precision of our observations, and the unique orbit and mission design, give us a new and advanced tool for unlocking all the puzzling questions we have had about the connection between Earth’s atmosphere and our space environment.”

The release coincides with the virtual summer meeting of CEDAR, the Coupling, Energetics, and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions program. The newly released data spans measurements made since the mission’s launch on Oct. 10, 2019. Data can be accessed through University of California Berkeley’s Space Sciences Lab.

ICON observes what’s happening at the lowest boundary of space, from about 55 miles up to 360 miles above the surface. ICON explores the connections between the neutral atmosphere and the electrically charged ionosphere. In addition to interfering with communications signals, space weather in this important slice of the atmosphere can also prematurely decay spacecraft orbits and expose astronauts to radiation-borne health risks.

“We’re really excited to see the first data appearing from the ICON mission,” said Scott England, the ICON project scientist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. “For me, the real power of these data isn’t just seeing transformative things like the wind patterns throughout the whole upper atmosphere, but having all these observations available to us at once, so we can see the connections between the neutral and charged environment around Earth.”

By Lina Tran
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

ICON Begins Study of Earth’s Ionosphere

Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft, with the company’s Pegasus XL rocket attached beneath, takes off from the Skid Strip runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 10, 2019. NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is secured inside the rocket’s payload fairing. The air-launched Pegasus XL was released from the aircraft at 9:59 p.m. EDT to start ICON’s journey to space. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

A Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket launched NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite at 9:59 p.m. EDT on Oct. 10 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) to study the dynamic zone in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather from above.

The satellite was attached to the Pegasus XL rocket, which hitched a ride on the company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. Once the aircraft reached an altitude of 39,000 feet, the rocket was dropped, with ignition occurring five seconds after.

“This is a fun launch. In my operational function, this is about as good as it gets,” said Omar Baez, launch director in NASA’s Launch Services Program. “The anxiety level is higher, the adrenaline is flowing, but what a cool way to fly.”

Originally targeting a 9:30 p.m. drop, NASA and Northrop Grumman determined to bypass the first drop attempt due to a loss of communication between ground teams at CCAFS and the Stargazer.

NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is attached to the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket inside Building 1555 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sept. 10, 2019.
NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) is attached to the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket inside Building 1555 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sept. 10, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin

“When your launch pad is moving at 500/600 miles per hour, things happen,” said Baez. “The first attempt got us because we lost positive communication with the aircraft and the ground, and our rule is to abort the flight and go back around and try it again. And we were able to execute it flawlessly.”

The region of space where ICON will conduct its study – the ionosphere – comprises of winds that are influenced by many different factors: Earth’s seasons, the heating and cooling that takes place throughout the day, and bursts of radiation from the Sun. This region also is where radio communications and GPS signals travel, and fluctuations within the ionosphere can cause significant disruptions to these critical technologies.

As a response to the recent scientific discovery that the ionosphere is significantly impacted by storms in Earth’s lower atmosphere, Northrop Grumman designed, integrated and tested the ICON satellite under a contract from the University of California Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy is responsible for launch service acquisition, integration, analysis and launch management.

The ICON mission is part of NASA’s Explorer Program managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, which aims to provide frequent flight opportunities for small- to medium-sized spacecraft that are capable of being built, tested and launched in a shorter period of time.

ICON is expected to improve the forecasts of extreme space weather by utilizing in-situ and remote-sensing instruments to survey the variability of Earth’s ionosphere. The mission also will help determine the physics of our space environment, paving the way for mitigating its effects on our technology, communications systems and society.

Learn more about NASA’s ICON mission and mission updates at:

https://www.nasa.gov/icon

ICON Flying Solo

This illustration depicts NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite that will study the frontier of space: the dynamic zone high in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather from above. Photo credit: NASA
This illustration depicts NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite that will study the frontier of space: the dynamic zone high in our atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather from above.
Photo credit: NASA

The Pegasus XL rocket has gone through each of its three stage motors, reaching a top speed of nearly 17,000 mph. ICON has now separated from the rocket to begin its mission, orbiting 360 miles above the Earth.

Learn more about NASA’s ICON mission at: https://www.nasa.gov/icon

And Drop! NASA’s ICON is on Its Way

A Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket is attached to the company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. Secured inside the rocket’s payload fairing is NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite.
A Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket is attached to the company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. Secured inside the rocket’s payload fairing is NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, satellite. Photo credit: NASA

We have ignition! Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus XL rocket is delivering ICON, NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer satellite, on its journey to the boundary between Earth and space where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather from above.

After reaching 39,000 feet, the rocket was dropped from the underside of the Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer aircraft about 50 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida.

The rocket’s first stage motor has fired, accelerating the rocket to over 5,000 miles per hour. After 1 minute and 18 seconds, the first stage motor will separate from the rest of the rocket, leaving the second and third stages to power ICON to its destination.

Stargazer Gearing up for Second Drop Attempt

Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 aircraft, Stargazer, is making its way back to the drop box – a 40-mile long area that the company’s Pegasus XL rocket can be dropped in. Secured in the rocket’s payload fairing in NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) – a satellite developed to study the Earth’s ionosphere, where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above.

Target release time is now 10 p.m. EDT.

First Launch Opportunity Waved off Due to Aircraft Communication Issues

The first launch opportunity of a Pegasus XL rocket, carrying NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), was skipped due to communication issues between the ground team at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 aircraft, Stargazer. The launch team is re-evaluating; the launch window remains open until 10:55 p.m. EDT.

Stargazer Enters the Drop Box

The Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, carrying NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), has arrived at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 1, 2019.
The Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket, carrying NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), has arrived at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 1, 2019. The rocket is attached beneath the company’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. ICON will study the frontier of space – the dynamic zone high in Earth’s atmosphere where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Northrop Grumman’s Stargazer aircraft, carrying the company’s Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), has entered the drop box – a 40-mile long area that the rocket can be dropped in. At this point, Stargazer has reached the required altitude of 39,000 feet.

In just a few moments, the rocket will drop from the aircraft. Following the drop, the rocket will freefall for about five seconds before its first stage motor ignites.

ICON Launch Countdown Continues

An artistic representation of the Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer flight path and Pegasus XL rocket launch trajectory. Please note: Images are not to scale.
An artistic representation of the Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer flight path and Pegasus XL rocket launch trajectory. Please note: Images are not to scale. Photo credit: NASA

Follow along on NASA TV and the agency’s website for the live launch broadcast, happening now. Before NASA’s Pegasus XL rocket can carry the agency’s ICON satellite to low-Earth orbit, Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer aircraft has to reach an altitude of 39,000 feet, which requires about an hour of flight time. Once there, Pegasus will be released from the aircraft, freefall for about five seconds, ignite and then launch.

Target release remains at 9:30 p.m. EDT. Weather officials continue to predict an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions for launch. The primary weather concern is precipitation.

Stick with us here on the blog and NASA TV for the launch of ICON, coming up next!

Stargazer Aircraft Now Airborne

Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer takes off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 10, 2019. The company’s Pegasus XL rocket, containing NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), is attached beneath the aircraft.
Northrop Grumman’s L-1011 Stargazer takes off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Oct. 10, 2019. The company’s Pegasus XL rocket, containing NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), is attached beneath the aircraft. Photo credit: NASA

Northrop Grumman’s Stargazer aircraft is airborne after taking off from the Skid Strip runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Stargazer is carrying the company’s Pegasus XL rocket – a small expendable rocket that is the only operational air-launched rocket in the world.

Pegasus is attached beneath the aircraft and will be carried to an altitude of 39,000 feet before it is released for launch. The rocket can carry a payload up to 992 pounds to low-Earth orbit and weighs in around 51,000 pounds. The launch window opens at 9:25 p.m. EDT, and targeted release is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. EDT.

Secured inside the rocket’s payload fairing is NASA’s ICON satellite, developed to study a recent scientific discovery that the ionosphere, located at the edge of space where the Sun ionizes the air to create charged particles, is significantly influenced by storms in Earth’s lower atmosphere.

Tune in to NASA TV and the agency’s website in just a little under an hour – at 9:15 tonight – to watch the live launch coverage.