Research, Science & environment

ICON’s mission to the ionosphere begins with beautiful fall launch

NASA launches mission to explore frontier of space

ICON satellite
The ICON satellite is now orbiting Earth after a successful launch on Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

At 9:59 p.m. EDT this evening, Thursday, Oct. 10, NASA launched the Ionospheric Connection, or ICON, mission, putting into orbit a satellite built largely at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory to explore the dynamic region where Earth meets space, the ionosphere.

The mission is the first dedicated to studying how terrestrial weather can help drive space weather above, in the region where our upper atmosphere overlaps with the lowest reaches of space – a dynamic region where changes can disrupt radio, cell phone, and GPS communications used to guide airplanes and ships.

While all went smoothly at the launch site over the Atlantic, mission control at the Space Sciences Laboratory had to contend with a power outage instituted by the local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, to prevent predicted high winds from sparking fires in the surrounding Berkeley hills. The campus’s cogeneration plant supplied the needed power to track the satellite during its initial passes over California.

“It was like watching a choreographed performance turn into a jazz improvisation as problems come up and the individual team members solved them in real time feeding off one another’s talent and energy,” said astronomer Steve Beckwith, director of the lab.

Power is expected to be restored on Friday, Oct. 11.

“After years of work, I’m excited to get into orbit and turn on the spacecraft, open the doors on all our instruments,” said UC Berkeley’s Thomas Immel, ICON principal investigator, who was in Florida for the launch. “ICON carries incredible capacity for science. I’m looking forward to surprising results and finally seeing the world through its eyes.”

The launch aboard a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket dropped from an L1011 airplane was originally scheduled for June 2018 over the Pacific Ocean, but various glitches pushed it back to a fall 2019 launch window over the Atlantic.

The L1011 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 8:31 p.m. EDT before flying to an altitude of 39,000 feet and releasing the Pegasus rocket carrying the refrigerator-sized satellite. The solar panels that power the spacecraft successfully deployed after it reaching an orbit of about 360 miles. After an approximately month-long commissioning period, ICON will begin sending back its first science data in November.

NASA announcement